1940s >> 1945 >> no-496-december-1945

Religion, Ethics or Socialism

The usual line of defence put up by the secularists when faced with the assertion that their movement is trivial and unreal beside that of Socialism has always been that Socialism could make no headway with the workers until religion had been eradicated from their minds.

We have never belittled the power of religion when used by an unscrupulous ruling class to befog the minds of those they ruled. Furthermore, we assert that it has been consciously used as a bulwark to discourage active thought by the workers on the why and wherefore of capitalist supremacy and privilege. We do not dispute the fact that Socialism cannot be achieved by a working class that believes in the supernatural. Socialism is based on the scientific interpretation of history. Religion is part of that history, and is the result of man’s ignorance of natural forces. With their progress in the knowledge of Socialism the workers must, therefore, shed their superstitions and become materialistic in their outlook.

Years ago it was pointed out by Paul Lafargue and others that modern industry was rapidly performing that process. That the materialist outlook was the natural result of man’s progressive understanding of nature. Lafargue pointed out that the capitalist relied for his income on stocks and shares that fluctuated in value from day to day from causes over which he had no control. He was consequently susceptible to all forms of superstition. On the other hand, the worker in his everyday life dealt with material things, their sequence and interaction. He had no belief in miracles. If something unusual happened in some industrial process, it was not luck or mischance—it was perhaps misjudgment, and he looked for the cause. That is not to say that the workers have already become materialistic. The forces at work in their everyday life are pushing them along that road. The majority have become largely indifferent to religion. In a letter from a parson which was given prominence in the Daily Telegraph, July 14, 1945, we read the following about an Englishman’s religion:—

  “It is a religion of unconscious assumptions imposing no severe obligations and retranslating the behest, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.’ into a loose belief in tolerance and withheld judgment.
“We shall recognise this quotation from a recent book as a substantially accurate description of the basis upon which perhaps 70 to 80 per cent. of English men and women conduct their lives.”

The writer then argues that while this is highly commendable and much to be thankful for, it is not religion. We agree. The Christian religion is belief in a personal god and a life hereafter, plus worship, prayer, ceremonial and intercession, etc. Social conduct and relationships have no real connection with those beliefs, though priests have always claimed that authority in these matters comes direct from God. They also claim that belief is an added incentive to good behaviour. That the omniscient presence has a deterrent effect on the would-be wrong-doer.

To link ethics with religion has been the policy of the church after Aristotle. The essence of religion being a belief in spiritual life independent of matter, it follows that it can have no concern with material conditions. Ethical standards are independent of spiritual beliefs. Moreover, ethical standards are part of the social superstructure erected by man on the economic foundations already in practice. They are modified by every considerable change in the means and methods of producing and distributing wealth. Thus the ten commandments of Moses was a patriarchal code. The Runnymede charter a feudal code, and the Franchise and Trade Union Acts, which largely dominate modern thinking, have become part of a code that could only arise in the peculiar conditions of advanced capitalist society.

Almost from the beginning of social life men have thought and planned for an ordered relationship in their dealings with each other. But a changing environment has always defeated them. In their struggle with nature for the necessaries of life, the discoveries they made always changed the nature of the problem. There could be no resting place. No period in history where they could truthfully say, “There will be no more history.” Where conditions were static and man’s relations within society could be determined once and for all. This has always been the dream, not only of Utopians, but of every despot and every class, throughout the ages, that has achieved power. Their dreams and plans have passed with them. Has the present ruling class any hope of achieving stability? Does society at present show any signs of being able to control and regulate the production and distribution of wealth on lines satisfactory to all? Emphatically no.

The prediction that capitalism is destined to dig its own grave is working itself out. Capitalism produces the conditions that destroy capitalism. Capitalist industry trains the working class in logical materialism. That training cannot be confined to industry. 70 to 80 per cent,.are indifferent to religion. They are not concerned with the controversy between atheists and Christians. They are looking for a solution to their own problem: poverty alongside unlimited powers to satisfy their needs. We have that solution—the object and principles of the S.P.G.B. The harvest is ripe. Go to it, reapers.

F. Foan