One of the first things the pope did as soon as he got off the plane was to launch into a bitter attack on “aggressive secularists” and “extremist atheists”. Here’s our reply.
The only reasonable position to adopt towards any religion is one of atheism: unbelief. There is a presumption in favour of not believing fantastic claims. It is up to the believer to present proof for the existence of God or life after death. After all, few are agnostic about Father Christmas, fairies or unicorns; we know they don’t exist. The same scepticism should also apply to the extraordinary beliefs of religion. With religious believers, however, there is a willingness to believe despite the lack of evidence. And it is this gullibility which socialists find to be dangerous and objectionable.
Of course religious believers do claim to have evidence, and they cite their holy texts as proof of the infallible word of God. But these writings contain so many contradictions and absurdities that no reasonable person can take them seriously. Traditional interpretations of the Bible, for instance, are highly selective and leave out the inconsistencies. In the Old Testament there are two different creation stories (Genesis 1-2, 4;2, 4-24) and two different versions of the Flood (Genesis 6,5-9,17). Needless to say, geological evidence does not confirm the Biblical accounts of the Earth’s age or the Earth being flooded to a depth of five miles all over its surface.
Nor do the prophecies fare any better. No unicorns or dragons have been found, as foretold (Isaiah 13,22;34,7). God promised the Jewish people that they will never lose their land (Psalms 89,3-4), that no uncircumcised man will ever enter Jerusalem (Isaiah 52,1) and that Jerusalem will always be a quiet place, undamaged by war (Isaiah 33,20).
In the New Testament Jesus is often reported as saying that the world is about to end, and that the end will come in the lifetime of his listeners (Matthew 4,17;10,23,-16,28;24,34). This is why he advocated giving away personal possessions, and forms the basis of the myth that Jesus was an early socialist. There is nothing socialist about making yourself deliberately poor in any case. Jesus is usually portrayed as peace-loving, but he also said: “Think not that I come to send peace on earth: I come not to send peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10,34). Carl Lofmark, from whom many of these examples are taken, comments in his book What is the Bible?:
“This passage has been useful to army chaplains and church leaders who have had to persuade people that they should go to war in spite of all that Jesus said about peace and forgiveness.”
But if the Bible and other religious texts are not literally true, as many theologians now accept, are they true symbolically? As with the above examples, do they have a “deeper” meaning? The trouble with this line of argument is that it is even more selective in choosing what to believe. It means turning a blind eye to the contradictions and obscenities and choosing to believe something you know is not true.
Once you have rejected the special authority of the Bible (or whatever text) as the infallible word of God, how do you know that you have interpreted the symbolism in the way the writers intended? Fundamentalists have a point when they say that this changes religion into a form of art appreciation.
Then there is morality. Many who would not describe themselves as religious will, nevertheless, have their children given religious indoctrination at school on the grounds that it will give them a moral education. In this country the law requires that Religious Education be “broadly Christian” in content. But would you want your child to be stoned to death for being disobedient, as God commands (Deuteronomy 21,18-21)? This is the morality they keep quiet about. If a husband finds that his bride is not a virgin on her wedding day, then she shall be stoned to death on her father’s doorstep (Deuteronomy 22,21). God instructed Moses:
“Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourself” (Numbers 31,17-18).
Not only does God give this approval of the murder and rape of children, but slavery also (Exodus 21,1-11). Jesus says that to be a true believer you must hate your mother and father and “yea, and his own life also” (Luke 14,26). For the unbeliever, “thou shalt eat the fruit of thine own body, the flesh of thy sons and of they daughters” (Deuteronomy 28,53). Jesus says that anyone who does not believe him will burn forever in hell (Mark 16,16). It has frequently been said that it is a very sick morality which can punish by sending people to hell. Even Hitler and Stalin only had their victims tortured and killed and then their suffering ended, but God wants the suffering to continue – literally –- for an eternity.
Faith is the last refuge of a believer. Religious faith, however, would only make sense if what was believed in were plausible. Neither the existence of a God nor life after death are plausible, though faith in them undoubtedly offers solace to many. It can make the unbearable seem bearable. But why should an all-loving God allow so much suffering, so much pain in this world – including the so-called “Acts of God” – earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and the rest? If God really did exist, we have no reason for supposing that he cares for us.
For some in recent years religion has combined with New Age beliefs, largely at the expense of the traditional religions whose emphasis on personal guilt, sexual repression and the inferiority of women have become unacceptable. This pick and mix approach can combine elements from the New Testament, Buddhism, psychoanalysis, paganism, astrology and various other bits of the occult. So why, the, the persistence of religious belief?
The socialist analysis of religion derives from our basic materialism (not in the acquisitive sense, but how we view the production of wealth in society and the sort of ideas it gives rise to). Historical materialism traces how religions have evolved, from their beginnings in ancestor worship and private property in primitive societies, to established social institutions. Marx hit a number of nails on the head when he described the social psychology of religion:
“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed, the feeling of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless circumstances. It is the opium of the people . . . The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusions about their condition is a demand to give up a condition that requires illusion. The criticism of religion in therefore the germ of the criticism of the valley of tears whose halo is religion.”
For the materialist, in other words, society is not really under human control and humans really are at the mercy of blind, impersonal forces – in ancient times the forces of nature, in the modern world the economic forces of capitalism. Under capitalism people feel, rightly, that they are governed by forces they can’t control but attribute this, wrongly, to forces operating from outside the world of experience. Churches of all types are then at hand for the sustaining of fear and superstition. For the socialist alternative to our lives being controlled by impersonal forces we must bring about a society in which humans consciously control the forces of production.
It is on this basis that we can say, rather than being abolished, religion can be expected to (as Engels put it in another context) “wither away”. And it can be seen that the socialist case against religion differs from the usual humanist position: there are rationalist superstitions as well as religious. For humanists, criticism of religion is a process towards the eventual “triumph of reason”. But they ignore the material circumstances which give rise to superstition:
“Consequently, in his worship of the ‘Idea’ the bourgeois freethinker is, like the Christian, attributing miraculous powers to the figments of men’s brains” (Socialism and Religion, Socialist Party pamphlet, 1911, www.worldsocialism.org/spgb/pdf/sar.pdf).
Capitalism has many opiates to offer the unwary. Reject the pedlars, reject the product, but above all, reject a society which can create such an unhealthy psychological dependency. On the new basis of material security and social co-operation individuals can gain a sense of meaning in their lives, and hope for a future free from the dead hand of religious belief and tradition.