“The fear of hell is a hangman’s whip to keep the wretch in order.” Robert Burns
Religions are not deserving of respect just because they are religions and they must be subject to the same scrutiny as any other belief and cannot hide behind the notion that they are personal beliefs. 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. A religious outlook—particularly its focus on a better life after death instead of here on earth—serves the interests of the minority ruling class and in our zeal to debunk religion, we should not forget that it is only but one ideological form at the disposal of the capitalist class. We need to remember that our criticism of religion is part of a broader struggle against the ideas that hinder the socialist movement.
Primitive mankind must have been unhappy and perplexed individuals, surrounded by natural forces that manifested themselves both to their detriment and benefit. Thunder pealed and lightning flashed, splitting trees and cracking rocks, sometimes killing companions. Flood, fire and pestilence gave their added testimony to the existence of an evil-disposed power, always near, never seen, whose awful omnipotence was beyond mortal conception. Mankind naturally ascribed these terrors to some powerful, malignant individual, in human shape (for it could conceive of no other, mankind, then, as now, making God in its own image) who took delight in causing sorrow and distress. He was the “Evil One”, who needed to be appeased by bribes of good things to eat, and plenty of them. Primitive humanity’s idea of heavenly ecstasy being to gorge oneself to repletion, unconsciously endowing the figment of the imagination and brain with tastes that we ourselves possessed, and the conception of the attributes of this deity was necessarily drawn from the source of all ideas – our own immediate environment. What was considered good was surely desirable to his God.
Other forces manifested themselves in an opposite direction. The warmth of the sun, the fruitfulness of the earth, the cooling breeze, the rain refreshing the parched earth could only be the results of the activity of an opposite nature to that of the evil one. The deity had to be thanked, and when a period of storm and famine gave way to one of mildness and plenty, what more natural than to ascribe it to the victory of the Good One over the Evil One? One was to be prayed to for success in the chase or in war, and for protection against the Evil One, while the latter had to be appeased by the sacrifice of the most precious of his primitive wealth, in order that he might be kept in a good temper. Thus arose the ideas of God and the Devil, founded on mankind’s ignorance of the laws that govern the forces of nature.
Every step taken by humanity along the pathway of knowledge has increased the scepticism as to the existence of a supernatural devil. In the same way with the growth of knowledge and understanding of natural laws, we have increasingly discarded the idea of a beneficent supernatural deity who was friend and protector, and the enemy of the Evil One. The light of scientific research has been turned on and illuminated the dark places, and now God and the Devil are gone. Supernatural religion has lost its hold on the masses. Priests and preachers see their influence waning. The spell of creeds and litanies is vanishing. We have discovered that the universe is eternal, subject to cosmic laws of birth, growth, and decay, operating in an eternal cycle of change, in utter disregard of puny humanity.
If the Bible and other religious texts are not literally true, as many now accept, are they true symbolically, do they have a “deeper” meaning? The trouble with this line of argument is that it is selective in choosing what to believe. It means turning a blind eye to the contradictions. 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? So if God really did exist, we have no reason for supposing that it cares for us.
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. To the socialist, the question of whether there existed a historical Jesus of the Gospels is not a burning question. Whether the Christ legends had a historical nucleus or not does affect the antagonism between religion, as such, and scientific knowledge. There is nothing inherently improbable in the collection of ancient myths around a historical personage and the attribution to him of the magic commonly believed in at the time. Christ is derived from a cult god of the Jewish sects. At the birth of Christianity men not only longed for a new structure of society, for peace, justice, and happiness on earth, but they trembled at the expectation of the early occurrence of the worldwide catastrophe which would put a terrible end to all existence. The search for a historical Jesus is really a sign of the dissolution of Christianity, of the weakening of faith, and of the growing scientific habit. Christ the Godhead has gone, and the attempt to find a historical nucleus for the Christ of the Gospels is the last despairing effort of what once was faith to justify itself by the light of reason. Christians are being compelled to abandon the supernatural and to attempt to take refuge in an unfindable Christ-man, but they only throw overboard their grosser superstitions in order to save the essential superstition of idealism as a bulwark against materialism. They wish to save religion by abandoning Christ the Son of God altogether.
Rationalists, humanists, secularists, atheists, see themselves as defenders of the Enlightenment tradition of respect for reason and evidence against its traditional foe, religion. But they see nothing wrong in capitalism, thus they do science no great favour in letting capitalism off the hook and presenting religion as the primary obstacle to the free development of science. It isn’t simply a question of religion being false, or brutal or divisive; it was a weapon of the ruling class, a bulwark in the way of the emancipation of the working class, a hurdle to be overcome in the progress to socialism nor could it be overcome while the conditions that nourished it continued to exist.
Thus, the socialist sees religion as an integral part of the class struggle while the secularist sees it simply as a harmful, false premise on which to base a system of moral rectitude. 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 attributing miraculous powers to the figments of people’s brains.
Feuerbach argued that the notion of god is a product of the way people see themselves. He argued that people ascribe to god just those qualities that they see as being essentially human qualities.
“…in religion man necessarily places his nature out of himself…God is his alter ego, his other lost half.”
For Feuerbach, people alienate their essential being by attributing their human qualities to a god who is then worshipped on account of these qualities. In worshipping God, therefore, people are unconsciously worshipping themselves. Thus Feuerbach argues that religion is a form of alienation that prevents people from attaining realisation of their own species-being. Marx is said to have directly repudiated any humanist notion of human essence:
“Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human essence. But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations”.
Here Marx is saying that there is no such thing as the human essence. What people have taken to be the human essence has actually been dependent on the material and general conditions of that society, the “ensemble of the social relations”. Ultimately, production and production relations determine the ideas individuals have about themselves as a group, and about society at large in matters of morality and religion.
Bearing this in mind, we find that religious perceptions in any class-divided society are not neutral, but a tool in the hands of the dominant class in its struggle to maintain its control over the economic surplus. Religious and all manner of spurious ideological theories are contrived by the ruling class or its representatives in the intellectual community and church organisations to keep the downtrodden perpetually entrapped in the vicious circle of exploitation.
Marx also hit a number of nails on the head when he described the social psychology of religion:
“This state, this society, produces religion, a reversed world consciousness, because they are a reversed world. Religion is the general theory of that world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritualistic point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction. The struggle against religion is therefore immediately the fight against the other world of which religion is the spiritual aroma. 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.
Religion is a social, not a personal matter and the World Socialist Movement holds that religion is incompatible with socialist understanding. For socialists, the struggle against religion cannot be separated from the struggle for socialism. We fight religious superstition wherever it is an obstacle to socialism, but we are opposed to religion only insofar as it is an obstacle to socialism. Religion keeps the gaze of the masses fixed upon the sky, the ideal world where they cannot see how they are robbed and oppressed; do not let them investigate the material world, where they would soon find the way to material salvation. Socialists no longer look to the heavens for a supernatural saviour, or to the class above it for a Moses to lead it out of the house of bondage, but have become conscious of the strength that resides within ourselves as a class. The first phase in the struggle to end the political and economic exploitation of our class is to learn to question the thoughts we inherit from well-intentioned parents and teachers; to challenge the strictures of the priests, rabbis and imams and to question why in a world of potential abundance, where a parasite class of non-productive money shufflers and profit-takers are rich beyond measure, and the working class that produces all real wealth endure mere want or dire poverty. Granted, the rich are lambasted in most “holy books” (other than the prosperity gospel of the American TV evangelicals) and told that they should give up their wealth if they hope to enter heaven. And this would pose a real concern to them if such a place actually existed. In reality, the religious criticism of the rich and powerful, far from threatening their social position, only serves to reinforce their rule. Religion may promise that the filthy rich will be punished—but the court date is in the hereafter, not the here-and-now.
Socialists oppose religion for its anachronistic premises, for the barrier it presents to scientifically examining and controlling our own lives and destinies. Religion starts by placing humans outside the natural world – with anthropomorphic deities shaping the world and people’s free will allowing them to obey and believe. Humans are part of the world and are amenable to scientific behavioural study, and it is understanding that that will allow us to liberate ourselves, and control ourselves and our destinies.
In many parts of the world, traditional religious castes still retain a strong sway. Where social and economic development has not provided a practical impetus to challenge the teachings and presumptions of religion, it has remained strong. Gaining further power as a means of giving a sense of identity and community to ways of life that are under apparent external threat – as in parts of the Islamic world and their reaction to western economic domination.
Also, people in politically marginalised and powerless communities – like much of the rural Bible-Belt in the United States – are turning to religious fundamentalism in the face of their own lack of control over their own and their communities’ lives. While religious ideology is no doubt a useful means of dampening social discontent, it would be mistaken to exaggerate how effective it is today, at least in the urban areas where most people live and work. It seems safe to say that the key ideology propagated by capitalists is not religion, but nationalism, which is more effective in blinding workers to their class interests and chaining them to a system that turns their blood and sweat into profits.
Argument alone will not suffice to remove religion and religious strife from the world, it will take the material interest of a common cause and a common struggle to build a democratic society where people stand in real relation to each other. 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”.