Throughout human history, various religions have evolved as questions have arisen about the nature of human existence. Standing in awe of nature, early humankind wondered at the apparently superior powers of permanence and survival of other animals and of the natural environment as a whole. Now, thousands of years later, there are numerous different world religions, each with their own rituals, laws and customs.
The major religions such as Christianity or Islam have spread to dominate large parts of the globe, and are united by their belief in a "God". Religion, like everything else, has been subject to evolutionary change, and the fortunes of each religion have depended largely on the growth in the military power of the regimes they were associated with. In more recent times, however, the great increase in our ability to produce wealth and to develop natural resources has removed the powerlessness in the face of nature which had been the background to the original emergence of religious thought.
In the course of time, a whole pantheon of deities, each with its separate responsibilities, had become collectivised, fused by human minds into one almighty, omnipotent, omnipresent "power", whether it was called Allah, Jehovah, or whatever. This supposed divine being still holds the respect of millions of people. Throughout the world, "sacred" texts written centuries ago are studied and interpreted on the assumption that they were passed down by this supreme power which is supposed to have created the world; why he should have created it we are left to guess. Each religion offers its own fantastic, imaginative stories about the same supposed "act" of creation. Favour, special attention and blessings are solicited from the supreme being under various names.
The history of religion itself shows how all of these theories and different suppositions have been nothing but the creative imaginings fashioned by human inventiveness. Each religion has had its own morality, as an attempt to map out an ethical code of human conduct. Such precepts have been enforced by the threat of the most terrible perils if they were transgressed.
The religion which came to dominate large parts of the world, particularly with the advent of early capitalism, was of course Christianity. Its background can be traced in part to the way in which Moses is supposed to have given the emergent property laws of ancient Egypt a holy stamp by declaring that he had received them from "God" at the top of a mountain. The growing class society was formulating class morality to fulfil the need of the social order for obedient "righteousness". As it emerged from its Judaistic antecedents, Christianity proved to be a doctrine of mental subservience, coupled with force and coercion for those who needed convincing of its sublime "truths".
THE RISE AND FALL OF CHRISTIAN DOMINANCE
In the present period, we see Christianity and religion in general in many parts of the world dwindling from its former stranglehold over people's minds. The times when its officials could order death and maiming to unbelievers are over, at least in Europe and many other parts of the world. The churches do still have influence, but many of today's believers are caught in mental dilemmas over which moral viewpoint to adopt over social issues such as genetic engineering, female clergy, euthanasia and nuclear weapons, in addition to the routine theological niceties of the after-life, the holy trinity and so on. These modern social contradictions are showing up theology for the nonsense it is: such are the problems of being a believer within modern capitalism. The crew of mystics identified as parsons, priests, deacons, reverends, very reverends and popes continually scour through texts to come forward with nice little anecdotes in an effort to solve these dilemmas; they serve up instances from centuries ago, when a certain prophet, angel or disciple acted "correctly".
"Seek and ye shall find", they advise, but many workers seek for a lifetime to puzzle out the ridiculous riddles, and the priests become desperate in their efforts to stem the growing tide of dissatisfaction, disbelief and uncertainty surrounding the ability of "God" to provide the answers.
On the questions that need answering most urgently, concerning war or starvation, religion has little to offer. Religions and their followers by and large take no serious account of the workings of capitalism. According to their theological outpourings down the ages, the cause of these problems is the "evil, wickedness and sin" contained within the human soul. They ask us to love our neighbour and "turn the other cheek": a hopeless cause in a social system dominated by the vicious drive for profit How can people change without understanding and changing the society which forms us and which we form? Amongst the violence of a place like Northern Ireland, we witness the spectacle of growing numbers of smiling evangelists, eager to make fresh converts by stressing compassion rather than hell-fire, in an attempt to enhance the appeal of their doctrines.
"GOOD" VERSUS "EVIL"
Religion teaches the farcical notion that there exist "forces" of good and evil, and that these derive from before the world was "created". In this tug of war between "God" and "Satan", the prizes are the souls of mortals, the stage is the universe, and the whole of humanity is supposedly torn endlessly between these two moral absolutes. Humankind is seen as a helpless pawn at the command and mercy of these two embattled supernatural beings. Today the churches have to try harder to convince us of the validity of their confusing servile dogma, as it is in direct opposition to the continuing rapid growth in scientific and historical knowledge. Computers, space travel and modern surgical techniques throw the dark and superstitious mysteries of religion into perspective as being dangerously irrational. The philosophical gap between rational and irrational thought grows ever wider, as scientific enquiry and historical research spreads its searchlight deeper into the very heart of religion itself.
One of the most pernicious aspects of religion is that workers should regard their lives as a trial or test to keep the faith, in order to be welcomed "up above"; the material world is also supposed to represent an inferior existence compared with the immortal, spiritual (and non-existent) life hereafter.
THE END OF IDEALISM
If humans are to reach an understanding of the nature of their existence, which is an integral part of all existence, they must abandon the religious outlook. If workers are to solve these riddles, we must grasp how the riddle arises, and how and why we are kept fuelled with organized ignorance. To overcome that ignorance we must utilize that part of material reality which is capable of gathering and examining the reflections it receives: the human brain. As a physiological organ which is tangible, fixed and related to the senses via the central nervous system, it can process the palpable impressions it receives.
The process of thinking is a function of the brain. It digests the sensory experiences it receives from the rest of the environment and, with its ability to think abstractly, it can perform the tasks of reasoning, memory and imagination. It can store and retain previous experiences. It can conceive of all kinds of things which do not correspond to any form in objective reality. For example, by mental application of the colour green to small humans, it conceives of "little green men". It could do this even before sensory experiences furnished the brain with the imaginative notion that their place of origin might be the planet Mars. It can conceive of tooth-fairies, fire-breathing dragons, Santa Claus, infinity, and, through a mistaken conception it can contrive an explanation for the origin of its own existence, together with that of everything else, as being the mysterious work of a "God". But nothing has or ever will be brought into existence simply by the cerebral act of believing and imagining. If all the believers in the world gathered together to pray for one of their Gods' tears to fall on them in pity, you can be sure they would remain frustrated.
Idealism teaches the myth that material phenomena derive ultimately from an "ideal existence" consisting of divine will, morality, justice, law or whatever. But such a world of ideals is itself the product of human thought How else can we explain how the "heaven" or paradise put forward by each religion has so closely reflected the society from which it has emerged? Christians continue to debate incessantly about the precise relationship between the "two worlds" which they suppose to exist (the spiritual and the secular), whereas in fact the "ideal existence" is only a product of the consciousness of human beings, a master which we have erected in order to bow down to. As such, it is simply another part of the one material universe we inhabit Like all other ideas, religious ideas have arisen within the material world which is constantly evolving, and giving rise to fresh ideas. From matter and motion there emerge problems and contradictions; these will be resolved not by retreating into irrational or religious thought but by dealing in terms of cause and effect.
The cause of the social contradictions we suffer from lies in the social network of material relations, which governs the production and distribution of wealth. Within capitalism, the present form of this network, production is carried out for profit, and the chaos which ensues produces a social system wholly unsuited to providing for our needs and collective desires. For these to be met we must develop a conscious understanding of the present social system, in order to organise for its replacement by socialism.
RELIGION AND NORTHERN IRELAND
In Northern Ireland, religion is a weapon used to further the ambitions of contesting sections of the capitalist class, and to conceal the real reason for social conflict, which is the class struggle. There are many examples of religious intolerance; the effects of the "divine message" have been far from "good", "holy" or "pure". It has become the means to identify a person's possible support for the Unionist or Republican cause.
The political options of being governed from London or Dublin are of no benefit to the working class of Northern Ireland, both protestant and catholic; their interests as a class are never discussed. The political representatives of the capitalist class in Northern Ireland depend for their livelihood on the continued existence of prejudice, both of the religious sort and of the other vote-catcher, patriotism. These attitudes regrettably form the basis of the political outlook of many workers in Northern Ireland.
Whenever these capitalistic prejudices are seen to be under threat, many workers are sure to respond, not with religious "compassion" and "love", or with patriotic "goodwill", but with violence. This is so much the case, that political spokesmen of the hostile factions daily parade their confidence in threats of violence and disorder. These mouthpieces are fearless because they know that if "necessary", some workers will make sacrifices to offer themselves as martyrs to preserve the respective reputations of their political gangs. There is no shortage in Northern Ireland of religious demagogues peddling their various "truths" and persuasions, all of them only too anxious to lead workers to the "land of milk and honey". Similarly, it is their fashion to extol the sanctity of property, along with the "wonderfulness, serenity and beauty" of servility, in that order. Hand in hand, the political orators and the preachers perform their necessary role for the capitalist class, one which attempts to indoctrinate workers in Northern Ireland by the distortion, omission and suppression of thoughts regarding their real emancipation.
They grow financially rich on the money offered from workers' pay-cheques, derived from holy and sacred wage-slavery. They conspicuously ignore the supposed virtues of their professed mentor, such as humility and denial, which are reserved exclusively for the flock. They grow rich egoistically on the miseries and helpless sense of powerlessness which many workers often feel. Socialism to them is a "godless creed". With its prospect of real emancipation, happiness and social equality, it is a victim of their malicious and irrational fictions.
When confronted by capitalism's array of problems and insecurities, and by our defeated desires and discontentment with the lives we are forced to lead, workers often turn down the cul-de-sac of religion for release, to ask from our knees that the "Supreme Boss" may assist and help us. When we are forced to sell ourselves to a class who squeeze us for profits, while being told to swallow large helpings of the ideological filth which lends support to our oppression, we feel a painful lack of real conscious control or of any substantial influence over our role in society. In prayers and rituals, the producers of the world beg of this "Cosmic Good Guy" that the realities of their class position be lessened to enable them to live their lives without the numerous problems they must daily face.
Religion provides no answers, just a sedative, solace and false hope. It is the perfume to mask the stinking realities of modern capitalism. It is a jumbled confusion, lacking any concrete provable basis, beneficial to the parasites and useless to the working class. For those wishing to develop a practical approach towards comprehending the nature of existence and of social change, this is provided by the materialist outlook advocated by socialists. Socialists stand in opposition to idealism and to all religious thought together with all other notions of workers being unequal, below, or secondary to any class or any "God". Socialism will see the establishment of a confident society with the realization of humans as the supreme beings in consciously shaping our own lives.