Religion and Ourselves

Several letters have come in recently about the Socialist Party’s attitude to religion. They might appear to show a revival of religious belief, but we do not think so. The more likely explanation is that we have extended the Correspondence section of the Socialist Standard and religious people, who seem to take as a natural right that they may stuff their views down others’ throats, have applied themselves to it.


It will therefore save much repetition if the Socialist position on this matter is stated here. From its formation the SPGB has opposed all religion, and no-one holding a religious belief is admitted to membership. The reasons for our opposition were explained fully in our pamphlet Socialist and Religion, which first appeared in 1910 and was reprinted continually in the next twenty years.


The opening section of Socialism and Religion was headed “The Need for Frankness’’. In 1910 as now there were several organizations using the word “socialism”, but none was willing to declare itself on this question. Instead, they took refuge in the evasive principle “Religion is a private affair”; in other words, out to catch votes and nothing else, they were not going to risk alienating supporters by insisting on proper understanding.


The Socialist Party’s position is altogether different. Of course we want more members and supporters, but on the essential condition that they understand Socialism and its implications. That is why our attitudes and policies are stated unequivocally all the time. On religion, we say now what was said in 1910: “No man can be consistently both a Socialist and a Christian. It must be either the Socialist or the religious principle that is supreme, for the attempt to couple them equally betrays charlatanism or lack of thought.”


It is noticeable that no letter-writer argues a case for the established Churches. In bygone years it was sometimes put to us that the Catholic Church was benevolent to the workers; we do not recall anyone ever defending the Church of England. Generally our correspondents appear to take for granted what our pamphlet in 1910 had to spell out, that the big religious institutions are in the pockets of the ruling class. What they urge us to accept is that Christian belief in “the brotherhood of man”, etc., is in harmony with Socialism.


Whatever social messages are inferred from religious beliefs, they are first and foremost beliefs — that is, they start by envisaging the supernatural; the divinity of Christ, the soul, the after-life. These are probably the bare minimum, but if they are reduced still further there remains a fundamental element of all religions which makes them the antithesis of Socialism. This is what in philosophy is called idealism: the belief that ideas have an existence independent of natural and social causes.


Socialism is not a philosophical idea, but the expression of the material interest of a class created by historical development. Its foundation therefore is materialism, in opposition to idealism. The materialist standpoint towards man is that given his social existence (a datum everyone is bound to accept) everything results, or will be found to result, from the interplay of social forces. Any alternative explanation must lead to other conclusions than Socialist ones.


The Losing Side
However, we do not find that it is Socialism our correspondents want. Professing to have common ground with us, they approach it in a remarkably one-sided way. It might be possible to have sympathy with one who said: “Christianity and Socialism are both vital. In order to join forces, let us both give up a principle. If you will abandon a Socialist attitude, we will reject a chunk (which you may select) of our belief.” But of course they say nothing of the kind. Their demand is for Socialists to give way to Christian claims. What sort of common ground is that?


It is also asserted, frequently, that the influence and fervour of Christianity can never be extinguished. The writers seem unaware of what is happening, and not at the hands of Socialists. In October last year the newspapers reported a national poll of religious beliefs undertaken for a BBC religious programme. Only 29 per cent. of those asked believed in a personal God, and 40 per cent. of the 16-34 age group rejected the idea of life after death. (Guardian, 14th October 1974.)


When we say that Socialist society will do without religious beliefs, it is greeted with indignation as our proposal to abolish. That is not the case; we simply remark that in a sane, stable world people will not need consolation by illusions. But the abolishing is being done by capitalism, which once needed religion and now no longer has much use for it. Perhaps that is why Christians have taken to petitioning the Socialist Standard; but it is they, not we, who must change.


Robert Barltrop