Is Religion Any Different Today?

A few times every year the SOCIALIST STANDARD receives letters which read, on average, as follows: “I have been a reader for some months and agree with nearly all you say, except that you seem to find no room for Christianity in your socialist case. Surely Christianity and Socialism both aim at the same objective, i.e. the brotherhood of man? I am myself a lifelong member of the Anglican Church . . .”

The answer is that ever since its foundation the Socialist Party of Great Britain has been unequivocally opposed to religion in every form. No-one holding a religious belief is admitted to membership. The opposition is twofold. First, to give credit to the supernatural and supposed absolute truths is to have blockades up against an intelligent understanding of the world. Second, organised religion has always been fostered by rulers to keep subjects in their place. With fear and ignorance as stock-in-trade, and poverty and submission as blessed states, belief provides a perfect instrument. “Let them eat cake” means the divine ready-mix on which every status quo in history has been nourished.

Lingering Decline
In 1910 we published the first of numerous editions of Socialism and Religion, the pamphlet in which our attitude was fully stated. Then, as now, it was an attitude which only Socialists could take. Plenty of other organisations and individuals may have shared the feeling that the churches were in the pockets of the ruling class, but were not prepared to damage their prospects of power by publicly declaring it; the evasive principle “religion is a private affair” had widespread acceptance in the Labour and radical movements. The churches knew the position only too well, however. In 1914 a Catholic Congress in Belfast heard an address on Socialism and Religion. “The poisoned breath of Socialism” was the lecturer’s phrase, and his plea “that it shall never be allowed to establish a foothold within the fair hills of holy Ireland”.

Why is not Socialism and Religion published today? If there were money to spare, we might have done it; but the fact is that the exposure of religion is no longer a “must”. The social importance and the influence of religion have declined steadily in the western world. There are, of course, special cases — principally where Catholic populations exist. Nevertheless, if it can still be inflammatory to write “Kick the Pope” on a wall, it is hard to imagine “Kick the Archbishop of Canterbury” causing indignation (“Kick the Chief Rabbi” would annoy the Race Relations Board more than anyone else). A regular churchgoer is now almost an exceptional figure. In non-urban areas where the churches’ direct influence on social life has continued longest, only handfuls now attend. In recent years between eight and nine hundred churches in Britain have been shut up or demolished and their parishes incorporated in others.

Without doubt, the vestigial beliefs linger on. Most people if asked would probably acknowledge never attending church except for baptisms, marriage and funerals; but assert also the “rightness” of it on those occasions and profess faith in God and an afterlife. They would think it wrong, too, to swear in front of a clergyman or anyone known to be “religious”. The word “atheist” has curious connotations of shockingness (“agnostic” is more respectable, conveying vague intellectual qualities). Indeed, Christians seem to take for granted a right to make themselves offensive to whoever does not share their beliefs. Tell one that you are an atheist and he will say either “I hope you’ve thought about this” (well, yes: have you?) or “I hope you don’t thrust it down your children’s throats” — which, considering all the religious throat-thrusting, is as absurdly insolent a remark as could be made.

Playing for Safety
Why do these traces and assumptions hang on as gross impediments to sensible thought? One reason is simply conditioning: what we are brought up on is not readily relinquished. Prayers, axioms, reverence, the annual reiteration of the Christmas and Easter myths — no-one escapes them in childhood, and it is made heavily inconvenient to do so afterwards. Another is psychological need: many people’s inability, itself promoted by the social environment which includes religion, to face the conflicts and problems of life. Its phenomena range from Moral Rearmament’s screaming that sex is a Communist plot, to the small boom in spiritualism after every war. The common word for adopting belief in such circumstances, “embraced”, is remarkably apt. It suggests arms thrown round in an imploring hold, hugging tightly for support lest the subject slide to the ground.

Do they really believe it? All the evidence suggests that mostly the vestigial beliefs are professed and rational thinking rejected as a kind of post-burial insurance, a hedged wager to cover the however-unlikely chance of the outsider coming in. As Samuel Butler wrote, the well-known hymn ought to say “I bet that my Redeemer liveth”. This is in fact the agnostic’s position — despite lofty phrases like “an open mind”, agnosticism is merely hoping not to be caught out. Certainly the usual claim that it is “scientific” to be an agnostic is the height of inanity: how far would science get if practised in the frame of mind that leprechauns are always a possibility?

Belief and Action
But nor do the more ardent Christians believe in the nonsense they preach. George Orwell, replying to a critic in 1944, wrote: “Most Christians profess to believe in Hell. Yet have you ever met a Christian who seemed as afraid of Hell as he was of cancer?” There is a shrewdly-conceived episode in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists where a preacher is challenged over a biblical passage saying believers may take poison without being harmed, shown a likely-looking bottle, and invited to demonstrate. His answer—”I wouldn’t be such a fool” — is precisely what all Christians would say about the literal pursuit of their beliefs. Why should they not be expected to pursue them if they do believe them? After all, it is usually Christians who say to holders of unrespectable views: “What would the world be like if everyone were like you?” Well, what would it be like if everyone acted on Christian precepts? To see large numbers of people rejecting riches, turning the other cheek, giving precedence to the meek and lowly, etc., would be a nice change.

Bottom Knocked Out
There has been an interesting example recently. General Amin, when he first proposed to expel the Ugandan Asians, announced that he had been told by God in a dream to do so. Considering the precedents for this, the political and religious leaders in Britain should have been very deeply impressed by it. Instead, it was universally taken as proof that Amin was mad. So the hushed reverence with which the Bible stories of similar visitations are told and received is a spurious currency, circulated against the background knowledge that repetitions would not be allowed to upset the way this society goes on.

Of course, many Christians disclaim the superstition and mythology; most of our correspondents do. They could hardly say otherwise if an argument is to be had. The main supernatural claims of religion have been demolished by scientific discovery which has become everyday fact, from Darwin and Lyell to space-exploration. Even allowing that many Americans reportedly think no-one has been to the moon and the whole thing is a TV studio production, nobody has commented that one of the oldest props of rule by fear has gone. It was never suggested or expected that the astronauts might run into flights of angels or pass Paradise on the way; yet only a generation ago schoolchildren were taught and adults believed that they were all above the earth, looking down.

The religious fashion today is to talk as if those beliefs were never taken seriously, and the remaining supernatural doctrines can (if it suits, that is) be disowned. Thus, the self-styled “thinking” Christian can play a game of can’t-catch-me: on one hand repeating Creation, virgin birth, Hell, Holy Trinity, resurrection, on the other explaining that these are allegories whose meanings his opponents don’t understand. It would be more to the point to say that he finds them impossible to support but is anxious for other people to believe them.

Meanwhile, in Society …
The decline of religion is due to more than simply scientific knowledge, however. Just as devout Christians do not live according to the Commandments and the Beatitudes because it would be materially inconvenient to do so, working people generally are less and less ready to swallow doctrines palpably against their interests. A notable instance is the increasing failure of working-class Catholics to comply with their Church’s orders about family life. Irish Catholics practise birth-control of a kind by marrying as late as possible, but in Britain and America the majority of Catholic families are seemingly affected by relative sterility. The reason is obvious. In a different environment, the extreme poverty of outsize families becomes unacceptable : belief goes to the wall.

It is worth reflecting, too, on the altered social status of the clergy. Up to, roughly, the second world war they were taken seriously. Churchmen’s pronouncements were reported on the front pages of newspapers. In country districts they were almost dictatorial, virtually commanding people to church. If you look at jokes in old numbers of Punch, a great many were about the clergy; curates were usually nincompoops with fertile wives, but bishops were always shown as awesome figures of rectitude. Compare that situation with the minuscule congregations and the clergy-jokes of today, as in the TV comedies like All Gas and Gaiters. In them, clergymen (including bishops) are shown as asses who impress nobody and think of not much besides fleshpots. These depictions are not tremendously funny, but that is not due to any feeling of sacrilege. When real prelates and vicars can be seen on television, bumbling in news items and burbling in religious programmes, for sheer hilariousness there is no comparison. The clergy, apparently, do not complain of Gas and Gaiters; the actors would have a far better case for complaining of unfair competition.

Nothing in Common
But what of “the brotherhood of man”? Can the absurdities, the superstitious and absolutist elements be stripped from religion and an entity remain which Socialists and Christians are striving for alike? The answer is no. The presumption that brotherliness and co-operation are “what Christianity is all about” is another religious spoof. They are what, humanity is all about. Man is a social being, with co-operation and order as his dominant tendencies — if he had not them, we should not be here today.

Socialists therefore do not seek the brotherhood of man: it exists already. What we aim at is the creation of a society in which it can flourish, instead of being continually frustrated and perverted as it is under capitalism. And, to come back to where we began, religion gives no aid in that task. On the contrary, by the churches’ support for capitalism and Christians’ hocus-pocus beliefs, it is an enemy of social progress. If, improbably, in a sane society there turned out to be individuals who could not live without imaginative consolations, that weakness would be accepted (certainly it would not be treated with the malevolence with which Christians behave towards atheists today). However, we are in the world of capitalism, and in that context socialism and religion are diametrically opposed.


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