1980s >> 1987 >> no-990-february-1987

Churches in retreat

Christian churches in Britain have lost half a million members in the last five years. According to the UK Christian Handbook, Christian church membership has declined to under seven million people, which is about fifteen per cent of the population. But other religions have shown an increase. In particular the number of Muslims has increased by over a third to 852.000 and many churches have been converted into Mosques. Other religions to have increased their membership, on a smaller scale, were Sikhs. Hindus, Buddhists and Satanists while the number of Jews showed a slight decline.

Although there has been a change in the type of superstitious nonsense being peddled, on the whole religion is a very minor activity in Britain. There will be a greater number than the above who still profess a belief in a god of some kind but who don’t want to be confined to the absurd behaviour patterns these churches demand.

In fact, Christianity has been in decline for some time. It has also continuously retreated from what it claims to be able to explain. At one time it said that the world was created by god in six days and that the sun revolved around the earth. Although there are still some who claim a literal translation of the bible, most Christians now accept the theory of evolution and other scientific facts. Instead they now try to stress the “symbolic” nature of god and the bible — how god is about love and kindness — and play down the roasting in Hell bit. Hardly a week goes by without some trendy bishop on the telly saying that religion is fun and positive and not about saying no to the things people enjoy.

The churches have always felt able to say that, despite god being all-powerful and creating the world (even if he used evolution to do it) when anything unpleasant happens it’s always the fault of human beings. So he takes the credit for humanity at its best when we are being loving, kind, creative and successful. But when it comes to Hiroshima and Auschwitz, pyorrhoea and Aids it’s got nothing to do with him – unless he is moving in mysterious ways.

Religious ideas and socialist ideas are incompatible. Socialism is about understanding the way society operates with a view to changing it. Religions preach submission, basically saying that a superior being controls our destiny and we must accept our lot. Such beliefs grew up to explain away large gaps in human knowledge. But as our knowledge has widened, the religious explanation is shown to be increasingly untenable.

The persistence of religious ideas can be understood against the background of an insecure world where, due to the class- divided nature of society, people feel powerless. Religion, with its promise of a pie-in-the-sky afterlife, may offer some hope and comfort. But as Marx said, “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of men, is a demand for their real happiness. The call to abandon their illusions about their condition is a call to abandon a condition which requires illusions”.

Religion has often been used by ruling classes to justify their dominance and the subjugation of the poor. Kings rule by the grace of god, it is supposedly ordained from on high. Often the first shock troops of the British Empire were the missionaries, who sought to convert the natives and teach them their proper (servile) place in the world.

The Catholic Church has made deals with fascist dictators in the past and is often a force for reaction in Latin America, although some priests have embraced “liberation theology”, perhaps in an attempt to be on the right side of any new ruling class.

In Ireland, religion has been used to viciously divide workers to fight for their employers’ interests, and many of the wars and disputes in the Middle East use religion and the idea of a holy war to get workers spilling each other s blood. Millions of deaths in capitalism’s bloody wars have been blessed by religion.

Religious ideas are political and must be defeated. Only when workers are free from such illusion will be we able to set about the real task facing us, transforming the world into a place fit for people to live in. It is the only world we will get and we should make the most of it. And not let any trendy bishops or long-haired preachers get in our way.

Ian Ratcliffe