Religion and the limits of the State

We have conclusive proof that Tony Blair doesn’t read the Socialist Standard. In these pages last month, we warned that trying to suppress religion or religious expression is not going to stem any terror threat. Yet now, the Prime Minister has stood before the media, vowing to close down Mosques where religious extremism is preached. Yet, censorship has never worked to suppress any ideology or movement.

The Blairites have long been proud of their writing the European Convention of Human Rights into British law. Yet Tony Blair has stood before the media vowing to amend the act so as to enable his government to use draconian powers against those it suspects – but cannot prove in a court of law – to be involved in the promotion of terrorism. We have, also, in these pages before, warned that human rights legislation was a paper thin protection against the might of the organised violence of the state. Thus it proves, when inalienable rights get in the way of untrammelled state power, they get torn asunder. There are rights, but only when they don’t matter, it seems.

Tony Blair has stood before the media of the world, venting sound and fury because the levers of state he controls with such ultimate power are inadequate to stem the terrorist tide. Kings and Prime Ministers have long been able to do whatever they pleased with the machinery of state – but their record in stopping the seas is somewhat dismal. The state has ultimate power over our bodies – life or death, but it reaches its limits at people’s minds.

People’s consciousness is not something that can be shaped by fiat – a minuted cabinet meeting declaring that all inhabitants of Britain will be loyal citizens. People’s consciousness is an outgrowth of their life every bit as much as their arms or their hair. Socialists know from long (and bitter) experience, that merely expounding an idea to someone will not move them. There has to be the basis of agreement already in their minds, based on their experience of the world and their values, for any ideas to take hold.

The notion that merely preaching is enough to turn people into suicide bombers is itself a part of the same flawed premise upon which religion is based: that people choose to believe. The idea that people are outside the world around them, separate from the chains of causation they can see in nature. It is also a projection of the self-image of the great leaders who believe that they can bend people’s wills to whatever they wish, like some great impresario in the circus ring.

Religion itself is subject to materialist explanation. It is, in fact, just a branch of science, the effort of human beings to understand the world around them. Beginning with the ancient religions that explained natural phenomena in terms of beings with human-like minds controlling events. That is, early cultures explained the world with reference to the thing they knew best, humans and human behaviour. Projecting human relationships on natural objects – for instance by making gifts to the fields and rivers in return for favours like not flooding.

As civilisation grew, human social science – or religion as it was called – changed to adapt to the new environment. Different types of gods grew up, who behaved suspiciously like the despots who governed the world at that time. The growth of widespread kingdoms lead to the development of divisions of labour which established priestly castes and codified myths to establish a common religious narrative (which helped in co-ordinating things like the kingdom-wide harvesting of crops). The essential ingredient, though, of projecting a human gift relationship on the world remained.

Around the first century of the Common Era (CE) this process led to the spread of the great monotheistic religions. At the time, Rome was spreading its influence over the near east. As trade and commerce extended, local tribal formations became more fluid, and so the image of one Emperor ruling over a vast differentiated domain easily gave rise to the idea of one God ruling over the entire Earth. People were obliged to obey that God much as they would have to obey the Emperor, lest they face his fierce and arbitrary wrath. The religion that most successfully encompassed that sort of world experience was Christianity, which grew to be the dominant and official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century CE under Constantine.

Likewise, Islam (Literally ‘Submission to the will of god’) emerged around 600 CE – propagated by Muhammed, a wealthy and well-travelled merchant. The Arab peoples at that time were divided and living in the shadows of the great Byzantine and Persian Empires (empires characterised by centralised monotheistic religious uniformity). It was to Muhammed and his movement’s advantage to copy this style of thinking and organising, as they began to spread their fledgling empire and unite the Arab tribes into a power.

That is, these religions in their time were rational observations of how both the natural and social worlds operated. Even, in some senses, progressive in their advancement of human understanding and the growth of civilisation. They stemmed from a need to understand a world that stretched beyond immediate apprehension and sense and spread over vast and intermingling empires. Lacking modern data capture or inquiry techniques, such empires could only be apprehended by metaphors for the emperors that ruled them.

The religions born then continued to be at the forefront of science for many years, either as direct means of explaining phenomena, or as paradigms into which new explanations and observations could and must be incorporated. If everything happens by the will of god, then knowing the mind of god is the only rational form of scientific endeavour.

As data capture and the technology of natural science advanced over the subsequent thousand years, the value of the old science began to be questioned. In Western Europe, this lead to a division between the concept of science and of religion. As various physical world-truth claims of religion – such as that of the position of the Earth in relation to the Sun – came under sustained challenge – by Copernicus, in 1514 CE – the established religious elites fought back, using raw political power and wealth.

This meant that the ideologues of religion came up with more and more ways to defend their world-view from the challenge of the new scientific methods – retreating (in some cases) to the point of defending religion as a mere personal preference in areas where facts could not be proved in the same way as in the natural sciences. That is, they clung on to the social sciences for a further three hundred years. All ethics and social theory was made by reference to the assumed existence of a despotic deity.

Class struggle broke out over Europe. The rising bourgeoisie challenged their feudal masters, and in so doing challenged the idea of obeying the dictates of a despotic god, instead trying to privatise conscience and change the relationship to a more contractual one. This meant challenging the religious authorities on the ground of social science, and meant that other theories could be opened up for debate – empiricism and rationalism and later idealism. They challenged simply accepting facts and truth claims based on authority. They challenged obedience to a set of simplistic rules set down by the Emperor. It was a revolutionary challenge.

This challenge lasted only as long as there was a stake in it. Once the bourgeoisie was finally ensured of power, the religious questions didn’t matter as much, and in fact proved to be a useful way of defending their new found supremacy from the challenge of the nascent working class. The same weapon of social science which helped them to power was now being used against them, to show how their rule was exploitative and domineering. The old religion became a means of justifying their rule to themselves and to their subordinates, as they spread their system across the globe.

To the extent that the working class felt themselves powerless, they were willing to accept an explanation of the world that gave them some measure of understanding and control – much as for the humans at the formation of the first religious impulse. As, however, technical competence was increasingly required for work, so has a growth of understanding of science and the world that sees much of western religion driven to either the merest shadow of its former acceptance, if not outright agnosticism (though many still accept the arguments of the theists over religion and belief over things which cannot be proven).

In many parts of the world, traditional religious castes still retain a strong sway – Catholic priests were wheeled out in Portugal to explain the euro, for instance. Where social and economic development has not provided a practical impetus to challenge the teachings and presumptions of religion, it has remained strong. Gaining a further power as a means of giving a sense of identity and community to ways of life that are under apparent external threat – as in parts of the Muslim world and their reaction to western economic domination. Also, people in politically marginalised and powerless communities – like much of the rural United States – are turning to religious fundamentalism in the face of their own lack of control over their own and their communities’ lives.

The resurgence of the old authoritarian religions is a growing problem. Politicians who also like to think of themselves as believers do not want to challenge the presuppositions and premises of these religions, but instead try to incorporate them so as not to challenge the structure of existing society.

Socialists oppose religion for its anachronistic premises, for the barrier it presents to scientifically examining and controlling our own lives and destinies. Religion starts by placing humans outside the natural world – with anthropomorph deities shaping the world and people’s free will allowing them to obey and believe. Humans are part of the world, and are amenable to scientific behavioural study, and it is understanding that that will allow us to liberate ourselves, and control ourselves and our destinies.

Argument alone will not suffice to remove religion and religious strife from the world, it will take the material interest of a common cause and a common struggle to build a democratic society where people stand in real relation to each other, not seeing each other reflected in the eyes of some ancient Middle Eastern despot’s mad dream.


Socialism, Atheism or Religion?

Religion: Dying but not yet Dead

Religion and the Limits of the State (This page)

Religion, Racism and Class

Socialism and Religion (1910 pamphlet)

More on the Marxian socialist analysis of religion can be found at