Religion, Atheism and Materialism
The review of Bill Mcllroy’s pamphlet, Foundations of Modern Humanism (January) is a history of the movement to break free from the shackles of superstition. It is, therefore, of necessity a history of assorted radicals. Liberals and Tories who, often at great personal cost, opposed religion and the barbaric blasphemy laws of their day.
The history of eighteenth and nineteenth century humanism, like the history of the Tolpuddle martyrs, does not deal with socialism because it took place before there was an organised socialist movement.
Unless people can cast off the superstitious beliefs inculcated by priests, shamans and witch doctors then it is impossible to build a more rational society. The Freethinker and Bill Mcllroy’s pamphlet, like the Socialist Standard, are first class at depicting the tyranny of religion. And whilst it is true to say that the Socialist Standard provides a socialist analysis of the case against religion which is missing from Foundations of Modern Humanism, surely that is beyond the scope of the period with which the pamphlet deals.
Actually, you are wrong. The early rationalist and socialist movements did exist at the same time and the key figure in 19th century rationalism, Charles Bradlaugh, was a notorious opponent of Socialism. For him, there was nothing wrong with capitalism as an economic system. All he wanted was capitalism without religion. So our reviewer was right to point out that Socialists are opposed to such “bourgeois free thinkers” who attack religion and nothing else.
Then of course there is Karl Marx. He had become an atheist in the 1840s (having been brought up as a Protestant Christian) before he became a Socialist. His criticism of religion, however, was different from that of the bourgeois free thinkers of his day since he made the point that the criticism of religion led to a criticism of the social conditions that gave rise to religion. Or rather should lead to such a criticism, and it was precisely because pure-and-simple atheists did not make this step that he criticised them too.
The social conditions which gave rise to religion were not, in Marx’s view, feudalism (that only gave rise to a particular type of religious belief) but any society in which the great bulk of the population were denied control of the products of their labour and in which these products therefore confronted them as an outside, alien force controlling their lives. Religion—and its core belief that only some outside super-being, not humans themselves, by their own collective efforts, can bring about a better world—reflects this lack of power and lack of control over their own lives which most people experience. But most people experience this under capitalism too, which is based, precisely, on their exclusion from the ownership and control of society’s productive resources and on the subordination of production to blind and uncontrollable market forces.
So, a consistent criticism of religion leads to a criticism of capitalism. In fact Marx’s analysis leads to the conclusion that religion won’t die out on a mass scale till capitalism is replaced by Socialism as a society where people do control the products of their labour and so their destinies generally.
As long as capitalism continues—or at least until there is a mass, conscious and self-confident movement for Socialism— religion, as the anti-human doctrine that we humans can’t control our lives but need the help of some outside super-being, will continue to survive in one form or another. The form changes—traditional religious beliefs are being replaced by New Age mumbo-jumbo—but as long as humans don’t in fact control their lives then religious beliefs will survive.
In not working for Socialism. but just attacking religion, bourgeois free-thinkers and pure-and-simple atheists are in fact hindering the achievement of their own proclaimed goal of a world without religion.
Based on common sense
I am very interested in your statement, in reply to a letter in the January Standard, that “such people [those who believe in an after-life] are ineligible to join the Socialist Party (but they can be sympathisers)”.
Neither the Party’s adverts in the Guardian nor its published aims state that atheism is a condition of membership—in fact, they don’t mention religion at all. At the end of the Declaration of Principles it says: “Anyone agreeing with the above principles and wishing to join should apply to nearest branch or Head Office.” If anyone who is a theist, or is at least open to the possibility of the existence of God and an after-life, agrees with the principles, why should he or she not be allowed to become a member of the Party?
I have recently read your excellent pamphlet From Capitalism To Socialism. Apart from the statement on page 12: “Wars are not fought over pious ideals like justice, nationhood, democracy or religion”, there is no mention of religion. Neither is there any mention of Karl Marx. It is based on common sense and nothing that a religious believer or someone who had never even heard of Marx could not agree with.
Have you thought through the implications of your permission for people with religious beliefs to be “sympathisers”? You are, in effect, saying to such people “although we think you are mis-guided fools and although we sneer at you every month, we will gladly take your money, whether it be in payment for our journal or in donations for the support of candidates in the General Election”.
The reason why the Socialist Party doesn’t admit religious people to membership is that we regard their views, on what is after all a key issue (the nature of human existence), as wrong. In the same way, people who want to support the Labour Party or who think that Russia was socialist are not admitted to membership.
Actually, although this is, probably inevitably, how others would classify us, we do not call ourselves “atheists”. The word “Atheism” suggests a concern with opposing religious ideas in particular whereas we are concerned with promoting socialists ideas. (In fact pointing out the mistaken ideas of religious people only forms a small part of our activity, as you have noticed.) We prefer to describe ourselves as “materialists”, i.e. as people who hold that all we humans know, and can know, is derived from the experiences of our senses of the material world that surrounds us and of which we are a part.
Could Jesus be a member?