God and the WSM

The quest for the supernatural does not stem from an excessive imagination but from a limited one constrained by years of exploitation and oppression.

Being opposed to religion is not the same as trying to prevent people from practising religion. We’re not interested in setting up an enlightened dictatorship. Socialists don’t want to police peoples thoughts – rather, we seek to change peoples ideas by engaging with them. It would be stupid to think that, in a society based on the endless oppression and coarsening of the worker masses, religious prejudices could be dispelled by purely propaganda methods. To put it another way, rational argument alone will not convince people to abandon religion because religious conviction is not primarily arrived at through a rational process (people don’t generally become religious because they’ve sat down and thought through the issues but due to indoctrination, spiritual experiences, etc.) We understand that ideas and consciousness come from our interaction with the real world, not from some outside force or god. From our perspective, people ‘s ideas change as a result of the struggles they engage in. If that were not the case there would be little point in our engaging in propaganda or activism – we simply would be unable to convince the huge number of people in the world of our ideas.

Likewise it is obvious the workers of the world won’t just wake up one fine morning, decide religion is bollocks and go out and wreck the avenues where the wealthy live. So it is certainly worth engaging with these sorts of beliefs through propaganda. Of course, ideas are always produced by the material and social conditions of the day. We’d be very poor materialists if we failed to spot that. But even so, ideas themselves do carry weight and are worth engaging with, or opposing, both individually and as part of an overall belief system that is equally a product of the times. We should strive to educate people, not ignore their ignorance.

Materialism means a correct understanding of how religion comes to exist. As a materialists we say Christianity as a social institution can be explained not as an act of divine will but as the product of specific historical trends and events. We don’t say “We hate Christians and they are all reactionary scum!” That would be akin to saying “this group of people are evil,” which would be an obvious instance of religious-type thinking. It is not up to socialists to disprove the existence of something that nobody can prove exists! Rationalism can only be a weapon in a democratic revolution. Rationalism may refute the “falseness” of religion, but it will never be able to understand the communal and social phenomenon (the materialism) that religion is.

Religious thought (and therefore behaviour) is dualist: it is based on the division between body and soul, matter and spirit, and this divide can only favour the latter over the former. The religious attitude consists in distinguishing two worlds. Beside (above or under) the world as we know it, the natural, visible, transient and daily world that our senses can feel, religion supposes the existence of another one, a super-natural or extra-natural, invisible, permanent world that our senses cannot grasp, and which lies deeper than daily experienced realities. Religion is of this world and out of this world. Religion is a “problem” in the sense that it prevents a complete understanding of the world and thereby a barrier to changing that world. At different points in history, certain religions can have a radical or conservative impact on the evolution of society, but it’s difficult to see any progressive role for any religion in today’s world. The evidence is personal experience and as that is therefore entirely anecdotal which doesn’t translate well into proof for others.

Whatever the believer does to change this world, for him or her there will always be another world of a higher order. Christians cannot give the same importance to Marx’s Capital and to the Gospel. They will say the two are “different”, but what ultimately matters to them is the Gospel. According to the Gospel, every individual receives a soul from God that puts him or her on equal footing with all others, with no special distinction for a particular people as in Judaism. You can become a Christian and be saved like all others. Christianity strives to create equality outside the realm of social relations.

No Church establishes itself without a social function. Religious institutions seek to impose a “world order”, they have their own view on what the world should be like and will attempt to manipulate and control it towards that end. Its bigotry has the same causes as that of society in general, and isn’t just the product of believing the wrong thing. Historical materialism in this sense is simply the pointing out of this reality, not a competing philosophy to be pitted against those of Christ, Buddha and Mohammed.

Neither poverty nor impoverishment automatically send people through church doors. In mid-19th century godlessness prevailed in the growing urban slums. Marx famous quote highlights the fact that the religious appeal does not derive from misery, but from its ability to offer a community for those living in misery. Religion does not ignore social conflicts and aspirations: it reinterprets and restructures them. As “socialist pan-Arab” paradises proved frauds, and their political and ideological frameworks proved unable to offer hope, the masses went for the Islamist out-of-this-world here-afters. Muslim regions have suffered much of the brunt of Western secularism. They interpreted their own condition and actions in religious terms and gave themselves a clerical political leadership. They are nostalgic of the long-gone grandeur of the Caliphate.

The teachings of Jesus of Nazareth may well be full of egalitarian and even liberatory potential but much of his work and that of his followers has been more or less expunged from the orthodox canon by the church set up in his name. The idea of a utopian communist teacher from Galilee may appeal but all of the rest, the Son of God, the Trinity and, perhaps above all the Original Sin stuff is just so many more links in the chain. It’s not just coincidental that religion, organised or otherwise, is often associated with reactionary political views – or that a great many revolutionaries have been anti-religious.

According to common wisdom, in educated open-minded countries (the opposite, for example, of Saudi Arabia), Churches retain some spiritual power but leave temporal power to elected governments. In most US states, an agnostic person has the same rights as everybody providing he keeps his mouth shut, and an overtly non-believer would have little chance of getting into Congress, and none of being elected President. Some American states make it compulsory to teach both evolutionism and creationism (in the more acceptable form of the intelligent design theory). US social life remains incomprehensible if one forgets the local community which is often based on its churches.

What should the attitude of the workers’ movement toward religion be? Joining the World Socialist Movement means promoting a materialist understanding of the world over any sort of spiritual or religious one. We have a materialist view of the world: we see society as based on concrete, material things and relations. Therefore, the only way to change it is through concrete struggles. Religion explains that the rest of the world aren’t material things but ideas like God, spirituality, Yin-Yang, Karma or whatever. According to this notion, the best way to change the world is through prayer, or meditation, or crystal healing or whatever your personal superstition happens to be. We argue that religious ideas constitutes a barrier to class consciousness and in that sense should be criticised. When workers begin to take control of their own lives and begin the task of bringing social life under the conscious control of humanity, the basis of religion will melt away.

The WSM won’t make the revolution – the working class will. But we agitate for communist principles within the working class. That means a materialist understanding of the world, and the way it functions. So its not so much that we oppose religion because its ‘oppressive’ – class societies can use any form of ideology – but because it is incompatible with a materialist analysis of the world.

Being religious doesn’t prevent people struggling in their interests, nor would it prevent us supporting them, as we support working class struggles. If we were an economic organisation, we wouldn’t be excluding people on the basis of whatever superstitious or party political beliefs they are attached to. We recognise that a revolution is likely to be made by all sorts of people. It’s probable that many will still hold on to their old, superstitious views whilst at the same time acting in a revolutionary manner. But the WSM is a propaganda group, agitating for socialism. We are critical of a number of other things, which we are explicitly opposed to socialist principles – sexism, nationalism and racism. Religious divides are also clearly used as barriers to working class solidarity. And would not accept a member who adhered to such opinions. We are a voluntary organisation of people whose defining point is an agreement with a certain set of political ideas. The process of joining a political organisation is about clarifying whether you agree or disagree with its ideas. People join the WSM if they agree with our politics. We never want to be in the situation where we have to expel someone. Ultimately it’s about maintaining internal democracy as much as anything. We want everyone to be equal within the organisation, not having comrades with different trust levels. If we had an organisation that was partly based on materialism/atheism, then with the admission of religious people we’d always be on our guard. What we do is exclude people who have imaginary invisible comrades who can put the world to rights by putting voices in their heads telling them what to do. We rule out magic and miracles as tactical options for communists. The World Socialist Movement doesn’t really care one way or another whether you meditate as long as you don’t think that focussing your mind-energies and cosmic-forces on the capitalist class is an effective tactic to use.

The role of religion is to support the status quo. Even liberation theology does not challenge the nature of capitalism, just the way it manages itself. We would extend this critique to every established religion but no doubt someone will say that such and such a faith is different. However, we’d always ask, does this body of ideas recognise that people can make their own destiny, that it takes the collective action of a class to change society – or do they believe that all we need is for people to have good ideas? If you believe that the way you behave is dictated by an external force to the real, material world the  companion parties of the WSM are not for you.

Religious superstitions are not just silly outmoded belief systems, like astrology and fortune-telling . They are dangerous delusions which can prevent understanding of the world as it really is. Whether it is the voodoo mumbo-jumbo coming from Rome, Mecca, or any other “holy” place, all religions are quite good at keeping workers appropriately deferential, docile, and slaves. Religions assert unreasonable and unreasoning certainty based upon no evidence whatever. Consequently, socialists cannot be believers in any form of religious superstition.