Socialists are hostile to all religions. Yet there is a difference between the socialist attitude towards religion and that of the secularist or atheist. The secularist tends to treat religion simply as a set of beliefs which he seeks to demolish by rational and logical criticism. To the socialist this seems a pointless exercise (as pointless as religion itself). Like the atheist we think that religion is irrational and unscientific, but we also think that the important thing is not simply to subject it to abstract criticism but to attempt to show why it arose and what its role in society is. To do this we apply the materialist conception of history.
Essentially the materialist conception of history suggests that any historical period is to be understood by the way in which men set about satisfying their needs at that time – in other words by the mode of production in operation. It also goes further than this and suggest that the superstructure of society (that is its culture, its conception of legality, its religious and scientific ideas and so on) is rooted in the mode of production. It follows, of course, that in a period of social revolution, when one mode of production is being replaced by another (feudalism by capitalism, for example) there will be a correspondingly massive upheaval in men’s ideas and in the ways in which they interpret the world. It is in this sort of way that Marxists explain a phenomenon such as the Reformation. We point out that the protestant ethic is brilliantly adapted to the needs of the rising capitalist class, in the same way that the ideology of the catholic church formed one of the mainstays of feudal society. Thus Reformation and catholic backlash represented the struggle between feudalism and capitalism being fought out on the battlefield of ideas, with religious interpretation and dogma as the weapons.
Socialists avoid taking up absolute or, as you might say, supra-historical positions. We do not argue that religion has always been reactionary. Over long periods it did represent a progressive force and it was even a reasonable way of interpreting the world – given the level of man’s knowledge at that time.
If we apply this approach to the present day, we must try to look at religion in terms of the social function it fulfils. We have outlined the role played by catholicism under feudal conditions and set protestantism against its background of developing capitalism, but what can be said of religion in relation to the modern working class? It is a supreme irrelevance – to the average working man or woman in the highly industrialised countries religion has about as much relevance as the phlogiston theory. Of course, this has not always been the case – even under capitalism. When Marx was writing a hundred years ago it was quite reasonable for him to refer to religious ideas as “the opium of the people”. At that time the majority of the working class, such as it was, was still riddled with religion and socialists did have the job on their hands of exposing these superstitions. This was especially necessary because organised religion was an unashamed and blatant defender of privilege and private property, as was shown by the attacks of the Popes of the time and other church dignitaries on the mild reforms which the social democratic parties were campaigning for.
Today it is different. In Britain today religion is only an insignificant weapon in the hands of the ruling class; after all, who takes any notice of what the Archbishop of Canterbury or Cardinal Heenan has to say? But this does not mean that we can afford to compromise our principles by admitting Christians and others to the Socialist Party. It ought to be clear from what we have said above that Socialism does not just represent a new and more just society which is therefore worth struggling for. If that were our approach we would be just another bunch of utopians. Socialism instead represents an integrated philosophical system, and analysis of capitalism and previous social orders which serves as a guide to revolutionary activity to liberate the working class. The person who finds Socialism attractive merely because, as a new social system, it appeals to his moral sense, who thinks in terms of “good” and “bad” or applies similar standards to capitalism, is likely to be led up all sorts of garden paths by his unhistorical and unscientific approach.
Another reason why we cannot afford to lower our guard towards religion is that not all countries have reached the level of Britain. In Ireland, Spain, parts of South America and so on religion is still very much a weapon wielded by the present ruling class (despite the odd guerrilla priest) . And since we are world socialists and do not just restrict our vision to Britain, we must actively confront religion in these areas – as far as we can. So the fight continues on two fronts, to replace religion and atheism by socialist understanding.
Here are some links to other pages on our website that deal with religion:
Socialism, Atheism or Religion? ( This page)
Socialism and Religion (1910 pamphlet)