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Religion: dying but not yet dead

Just three years ago that old war-horse, Sir Ludovic Kennedy, finally got around to putting on paper the arguments against Christian belief which had been in his mind for many years. In the book, All in the mind: a farewell to God, he used his own troubled thoughts from childhood and adolescence as (sometimes amusing) raw material for his arguments and makes the telling point that “few people today can have any idea of the force of conformity then”. Kennedy was almost 80 years old and worried about the timing of his publication, fearing that he might have “missed the boat” and was pursuing the subject too late to gain attention and to be effective.

He needn't have worried; his effort was certainly not superfluous to requirement. World news during recent months alone should convince even the most optimistic atheist that the long struggle to free human thinking from the shackles of religion still faces huge obstacles. For thoughtful people the intellectual undermining of Christian belief by increasing knowledge was effectively complete by the end of the 19th century, but to listen to the speeches and to view the policies of “our” government politicians, let alone those of the USA, one would think that we were still living in early Victorian times.

Nick Cohen, a regular critical columnist for the Observer, must be an optimist, for he recently wrote (1 December) that “one of the best reasons to be proud to be British (was) our defiant atheism”. Cohen must live in some free-thinking cloistered community: surely not in the same Britain as I, blessed as it is with the Reverend Blair for Prime Minister and under the benign rule of our gracious queen who gives thanks for her Christian faith in her Christmas messages. No, Cohen gave the lie to his own rejoicing in the article itself which attacked the pro-religion bias of the government and its backward-looking ideas. He wrote that the new Communications Bill would apparently include “a proposal to allow any sect to win a radio licence in the new age of digital broadcasting”. When we think of the immense power of the religious TV and radio stations in the USA with their reactionary propaganda, we get an inkling of what is being prepared for us with the full blessing of Tony Blair and his cabinet.

We already have the government's encouragement for the creation of more sectarian schools, and thus for increased division and antagonism along religious lines. With their present attitudes and proposed actions they presumably intend to try to halt, or even to reverse Britain's steady drift away from religious belief and towards a saner, secular state.

If they succeed shall we see here the growth of groups like those in America where, according to the Times (20 September), “a quarter of all Americans believe that Jesus will return during their lifetimes” and “nearly two in three believe Revelation's apocalyptic prophecies to be broadly accurate”? The breadth of education of children in some states there is already restricted by pressure against the teaching of biology and evolution exerted by religious bigotry. The result of this lop-sided outlook has shown up in another area recently for the Times article goes on to describe the incredible success among religious Americans of a best-selling series of Star Wars-style books based, of all things, on the mind-boggling tales of the Book of Revelation.

Whether Bush himself is included among such cranks is not entirely clear but his chosen Attorney-General, John Ashcroft, must surely be a prime candidate. He has “instituted regular Bible study and sing-alongs in his office, despite the misgivings of his staff “, and is “anti-abortion, anti-gay and pro-gun and pro-death penalty”. The danger of having such men in positions of power in trigger-happy all-powerful American capitalism is made doubly frightful when large parts of their electorate are imbued with similar ideas. In this third millennium such ideas and the actions they portend should, of course, be nothing but laughable nonsense, not potential tragedy as now.

But what ought to be done about these dangerous primitive beliefs? It may be felt that anti-religion propaganda work is little more than a futile diversion from the more important job of propounding socialism. Perhaps: but the two are closely intertwined. Blair justifies the “morality” of bombing the Iraqis by linking it to his Christian beliefs. Bush and his oil-soaked cronies, with their fundamentalism, do much the same. Incidentally, Bush and Blair were reported by the Observer as “the only two world leaders known to keep a copy of the Bible in their bedrooms” and to be regular readers of the Scriptures.

Much more serious than the religious quirks, genuine or professed, of these political bosses has been the ability of capitalism to gain tremendous propaganda benefit from the diversity of religious belief across the world. Not only was the bombing of the World Trade Center a godsend to the Bush government in providing the perfect pretext for US intervention anywhere, anytime, anyhow; it also proved a perfect trigger for the launch of an insidious campaign of racial and religious prejudice and distrust. Despite occasional public statements from Bush that the West had no quarrel with mainstream Islam, there is no doubt whatever that, with help from the western media and repeated insinuations from various officials, chiefly in the US, the widespread impression has been created that opposition to, hatred of and terrorism against the US is essentially “a Muslim thing” and even that the Islamic faith itself carries the seeds of violence and terrorism. Thus we see that a difference in religion has offered the opportunity for capitalism to denigrate as scapegoats (to some degree) the whole of the Islamic world: and to drive a wedge of suspicion and distrust between western workers and their eastern counterparts – a good present-day example of the old imperial dodge of “divide and rule”

Belief in religion – any religion – warps and hampers the ability to think objectively, particularly about social and political issues such as those now filling the newspapers (Islam, immigration, cultural clashes, etc.). In order to grasp the urgent need for and the possibility of achieving major social change one must first be able to think clearly and to understand just how capitalism works – or, quite often, doesn't. This is something men and women are much less able to do if their heads are full of religious fantasy and their thinking is correspondingly irrational. The disappearance of all religious beliefs, whether “We poor sinners here below” or “Allah's will be done!” should be seen as an essential part of our struggle for socialism and not just as a fringe irrelevance.