1980s >> 1989 >> no-1015-march-1989

The Religious Mentality

    “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” (Marx, Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law)

These are embarrassing times for the religious opium addicts who want to uphold their ideas in the company of rational people. Last year saw thousands of religious Americans ranting and raving because cinemas showed The Last Temptation of Christ. Christ on the cross is shown fantasising about having sex with Mary. The Christians screamed blasphemy: our Lord would descend to no such vulgar antics in the course of crucifixion: he was human, but he wasn’t that human. The Bishop of Durham shuffled around hoping that his nutcase followers would get off the TV screens and back on their knees where they belonged. Leave the intellectualising to Bishops who know how to square circles. But the self-appointed censors were the real Christians; they knew that in the New Testament Christ says that anyone who doubts him will face eternal damnation. Still, at least the crazy Christians did not want to kill the film’s director—just making him mute would have suited their Christian consciences.

Crazy Muslim consciences are not so easily satisfied. The Ayatollah Khomeini has called upon all good Muslims to kill Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses, a novel with a dream sequence in which the prophet Mohammed indulges in a few last temptations of his own. Copies of the work have been publically burned by Muslims in Bradford.

Let us not beat about any religious bushes on these book burnings: they are the acts of modern Nazis who think that ideas can be destroyed by fire, Max Madden, the Labour MP for Bradford, motivated both by a cynical quest for the local Asian vote as well as some sincere but half-baked anti-racist sentiments, has called for an extension of the blasphemy law to include Islam. In short, it would be illegal (punishable by fines and imprisonment) to speak or write in ways which give offence to Muslim irrationalists, just as it currently is in relation to Christian irrationalists. In this wholly undemocratic enterprise Madden has been supported by other Labour MPs, including Bernie Grant. Madden even went so far as to state on BBC Radio Two that any book likely to cause offence to Muslims should be published only if they were granted by the publishers a right of reply. One can only speculate as to which particular guardians of the absolute Truth of Islam would be granted this right for, as Madden must surely know, there are several factions of the religion, each bitterly opposed to the others.

The Rushdie matter has highlighted the basic issue in relation to religion. It is not, as secularists have rather tiresomely contended for decades, about whether god exists. Scientific thinkers are hardly likely to waste time arguing about an invisible entity which demands faith as the proof of its existence. Does god exist? Do fairies live at the bottom of my garden? Is Elvis Presley alive? Let those who can define these supernatural phenomena offer proof. Religious thinkers have not tended to be bothered with scientific investigations to establish proof; faith will do nicely. The issue is not what they believe, but that they believe. Believing is what you do when you don’t know, and religious belief is certainly based on ignorance of what there is to be known. The religious mentality is one which substitutes what is believable for what is scientifically knowable.

With his or her pack of beliefs, the religious individual looks at the world, embracing that which reinforces the beliefs, retreating from experience which conflicts with them. New knowledge, untried feelings, novel perspectives must be first mistrusted, then banned. Nothing must interfere with the dogma. If Christians really believe that Christ lived and was a pure and wonderful person, then they would have the confidence to withstand a film which says otherwise. But dogmatism is fragile. It is upheld by denying all other images than those which reinforce it. The Ayatollah’s assassination call, as well as being a cynical political tactic to distract his war-weary subjects (some of whom might just be thinking about assassinating him and others in the theocratic mullah elite), is also a sign of a lack of confidence. It is the uncertainty which all dogmatists always feel and always will feel: it was lack of assurance which led Christ to state that all doubters would go to Hell and Lenin, at the Tenth Bolshevik Congress in 1921, to say that those who did not follow the leadership were state enemies.

When Muslims in Britain petitioned the Ayatollah about Rushdie they were testifying that their beliefs were under threat by truths they could not handle. Polite and embarrassed liberal Muslims have said that the Ayatollah does not represent real Islam. Maybe he does not (on the basis of Sura 42 verse 35 of the Koran, governments established by coups are said to be sinful), but whether one old Iranian tyrant is a good Muslim is not the point. To be a good Muslim is to possess a religious outlook; to be religious is to offend against the most elementary requirements of reasonable thought. And a society inhabited by unreasonable workers is one which is safe for the minority who prey on ignorance.

Marx, as well as referring to religion as “the opium of the people”, called it “The self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet found himself or has already lost himself again”. The religious mentality exists in those workers who have not yet discovered the essential, exhilarating fact that we are the gods. We must make the future out of the material conditions which surround us: gods, prophets, bishops and mullahs are the illusory masters who people invent to tower over them. The socialist transformation of society will banish the capitalists from the earth and the gods from the skies—or to be accurate from the minds of men and women, where they have exercised their pernicious fantasies for too long. Those who choose to believe in powers beyond will be free to do so in a socialist society. Indeed, without the state to adopt this or that religious dogma as the official one, religious believers will be freer than they are now. Freer, but never free to tell others what to do. It will take more than a divine injunction from a white-bearded guru to tell socialists what we can think, say or write.

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