Atheism: Transcending Superstition


The question of religion is not infrequently broached with socialists. A variety of cases are made ranging from the absolutely irrefutable word of God, as recorded in the bible (or sacred scripture of choice), to attempts to reconcile religious faith with Marxism.

Liberation theology is perhaps the most systematic attempt at this latter approach on a society-wide basis. However, this turns out to be a melding of Roman Catholicism and ‘Leninist socialism’ of the Cuban variety in Latin America where this theology was concocted.

Sympathy with the poor rather than being the spiritual mask of the rich is laudable, but does nothing to address the fundamental cause of that poverty, the material relations of wealth production and distribution. Not only is the pursuit of profit not sinful in capitalism, it is a basic requirement any lachrymose response by the Church cannot challenge.

Socialists can respond to religious entreaties in a trenchant manner, insisting that atheism expressed as materialism is the only credible way of understanding capitalism and bringing about the conscious change required by the working class, the vast majority, to strive for and achieve socialism.

But what is meant by atheism? Rejection of an anthropomorphic God who judges every human action, rewarding the good and punishing the bad, was achieved by serious theology centuries ago. There are still the credulous who believe they can achieve great wealth by praying for it, but they usually end up considerably poorer having gifted what little money they have to the religious sect making ‘divine’ promises.

A more robust atheism takes issue with all forms of God promotion, anthropomorphic, theistic, deistic, pantheistic, non-interventionist uncaused cause etc. Marx, it is commonly asserted, held with this position, and yet he declined to be identified with it.

This is in no way meant to indicate that Marx held some vague quasi-religious view. Far from it. He didn’t want to deny religion, but move beyond the religious question entirely. As atheism is merely the counter to theism, such a move required setting both aside. In a letter to Arnold Ruge, Marx wrote that he rejected:

‘… the label atheism (which reminds one of children assuring everyone who is ready to listen to them that they are not afraid of the bogey man) …’ (Letter to Ruge, 1842).

Two years later, in the 1844 Manuscripts, Marx argued:

‘Atheism, as a negation of God, has no longer any meaning, and postulates the existence of man through this negation; but socialism as socialism no longer stands in any need of such mediation.’

It is worth socialists reminding themselves what Marx wrote in the paragraph that ends with his most quoted phrase on this subject:

‘Religious suffering is at one and the same time the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’

Atheism is not limited to merely attacking the symptom, religion, rather than the disease, capitalism, it also constitutes an assault on the means by which suffering may be endured.

Today it could be football or Facebook, consumerism and credit, gambling or gardening, even actual opiates or drugs of choice that have supplanted religion as the analgesic of social ills.

In Britain, people have now largely, for all intents and purposes, given up on religion. As Marx wrote in his Theses on Feuerbach (No. 8):

‘All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.’

For all that religion has been abandoned by the majority of the working class in Britain and many other western countries, it still exerts an obviously strong influence in many parts of the world. Where that is the case religion continues to fulfil its role as a reaction to poverty, both economic and philosophic. In extremis, the opiate proves deadly, as with ISIS.

Of course, just because Marx took a view it doesn’t mean it is of necessity correct: his writings are not to be quoted as pseudo-holy writ. However, on the subject of religion it would seem that the better case to be made is for socialism rather than atheism.

Religion is not to be abolished in the name of socialism. That can be left in the past with Stalin and Enver Hoxha. Better to progress the case for the working class to pursue actual socialism which requires collective conscious action by the class on its own behalf.

This does not entail any compromise with religion, not even if it attempts to accommodate itself to the socialist cause.

‘Christian Socialism is but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat’ (Communist Manifesto).

The point is not to negate religion but to transcend it through socialism harnessing the material resources available to humanity and employ them democratically for the commonweal, if not for heaven on earth, then as close as mankind can get to it.

DAVE ALTON

From Socialist Standard April 2020

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