For my next post, I thought it highly appropriate that I offer a Marxist outlook on the nature of religion and its role in society today. Like it or not, religious institutions do and may continue to exercise influence on very important aspects of people’s public and personal lives for the foreseeable future and it is important to understand why this is the case. As I always say, it really is no good to simply blame the symptom of the illness and ignore the actual root of illness. Too often we overlook (deliberately or without meaning to) the root cause of the issues that bother us the most. Karl Marx famously proclaimed that religion is “the opium of the people”. Like a drug, it sedates, it offers an escape from reality, it is powerful, difficult to remove oneself from, and it can cause more harm than good at times, proving to be dangerous in excess and in the wrong hands. Marxists have traditionally called for secularism, but emphasis is put on the divorcing of religion from the state and civil society. Education, government, the courts and all aspects of public service and provision should have no connection with religious practice. That is the only way we will see decisions being taken with a more objective outlook, as opposed to with some religious agenda in the background. It is perfectly correct, as part of an education system based on tolerance and mutual respect, for school students to understand the basic outlines and beliefs of world religions, but they should also be taught the hows and whys behind the emergence of such practices. There is absolutely no need for faith to be taught within the realms of science. We already know of schools in America that teach creationism in a bid to brainwash their school students into becoming militant and close minded fundamentalists.
Today, one of my biggest criticisms of religion is its backwards nature. Humankind has come leaps and bounds and has achieved a level of progress, even just within the last fifty years, that would account for forward steps of a hundred years, and yet we still have church leaders vehemently discouraging women from using birth control and taking control of their lives; pressure groups are terrorising women who wish to abort unwanted children, without taking into account the concrete conditions of each person’s personal situation; so called ‘peaceable’ figures arguing that gay people are still not equal to straight people and, almost worse, that they can and should be changed using ‘scientific’ techniques as though they were some robots, and not human beings, flesh and blood. Despite us being firmly in the twenty-first century, women in numerous countries across the globe are forced to submit to the will of the men in their lives, some may be abused physically, mentally, and emotionally, and others will be stoned to death. In 2012, you still hear stories of religious figures abusing young children, and showing no remorse. And yet, it is the idea of secular society that takes the utmost bashing and constantly needs to be defended against religious attack. Ironically, religion was once a ‘progressive’ method of trying to explain what seemed to be unexplainable. To some extent, it was the ‘science’ of the day – except this day was thousands and thousands of years ago. Christianity, although it came before Islam, might still be considered to be one of the most ‘recent’ religions and yet it is still grossly outdated and ill-equipped to explain the here and now, as is religion as a whole.
Lenin, writing in 1909, said that: “The deepest root of religion today is the socially downtrodden condition of the working masses and their apparent complete helplessness in the face of the blind forces of capitalism, which every day and every hour inflicts upon ordinary working people the most horrible suffering and the most savage torment, a thousand times more severe than those inflicted by extraordinary events such as wars, earthquakes, etc.” (The Attitude of the Workers Party to Religion).
Interestingly and importantly, Lenin points out the fact that the roots of religion, as with other influential phenomena, can and do change with time. Why do we still have so many people insisting on ‘evangelising’ and trying to force their religious beliefs down the non-believer’s throat on a daily basis? As anarchic as it sounds, I believe that religion is used as a tool of mass control. It is no longer a personal thing that a person, or a group of people choose to follow in order to find comfort, help, or answers. People in power use it to control the masses. The ‘most horrible and the most savage torment’ that we hear about in the news daily remind us that the majority of the world do not live comfortable lives like we do. And the reason why is because they are the sacrificial goats on the capitalist altar that has been built, and that has shown that it will destroy itself. Capitalism can only exist when a majority is being exploited, otherwise what would be the point? And in the fight to retain power as the masses start to see the light and react against their oppressors, religious control has never been more important. And fighting it is even more important. What I’m talking about really is materialism. Not ‘materialist culture’ but the idea of working with the material conditions within the material world – looking at things scientifically, as opposed to through rose-tinted – well rose haemorrhaged – glasses. It is not possible to understand the development of organised religion by a discussion on ‘ideas’ alone, but only by an examination of the material roots of religion, as aforementioned. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were consistent materialists, in that they applied their materialist world outlook to history and politics in what became known as Historical Materialism. “Marx and I”, Engels wrote, “were pretty well the only people to rescue conscious dialectics from German idealist philosophy and apply it in the materialist conception of nature and history. The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the production and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; that in every society that has appeared in history, the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or estates is dependent upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged. From this point of view the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men’s brains, not in man’s better insight into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange. They are to be sought, not in the philosophy, but in the economics of each particular epoch…” (Anti-Duhring)
John Pickard sums up the debate very well and puts forward an argument for how atheists and secularists can best go about understanding the nature of the forces they are fighting against:
‘The problem with many atheists and secularists is that their arguments are presented as if the whole question of religion is purely an ideological struggle, an intellectual debate in which the followers of religion are charged with harbouring inferior and inconsistent ideas. That indeed may be the case but it is important to see the modern phenomenon of mass support for various religions, as well as their historic foundations as being rooted in the material conditions of society. Religions have not arisen because of ideas that were superior at the time, and which are required to be supplanted at a later stage by even more superior ideas. The origin of all mass religions is rooted in specific sets of social and economic conditions, each at a given moment in history.
These material conditions were expressed ideologically – in politics and, above all, in religion – as a consequence, not as a cause. The inception of a religion owes more to the national and class conflicts of the day than to a clash in the realm of pure ideas. It is as a result of the material and intellectual cul-de-sac in which modern capitalism finds itself that so many millions of people are so ‘spiritually’ alienated from society that they look for inspiration elsewhere, including metaphysics. Likewise, it will be from these economic and material contradictions and the class conflicts they engender that a new social order can be created. It is within that perspective that the ground can be prepared for religious ideas to wither away.’
Pickard emphasises my point about root causes and the material conditions of each person within their current society. Religion must be looked at an evaluated within the historical framework of each period of time, as said framework is not a constant. Atheists and secularists cannot work within the realm of ideas and abstracts – that is the difference between Marxism and religion.
I say a move towards a secular society should go hand in hand with a move away from capitalism. Then we will really have reached the next stage of ‘progress’. You know, I spent two weeks reading about modernism for exam revision and Marx and Engels were key thinkers within the ‘movement’, despite the anti-democractic Baudelaire also being a key figure. That sums up the contradictory nature of ‘modernism’. I mention this briefly because I know that I have spoken about this idea of ‘progress’ and I think that defining what that really is would take a whole other blog post. But I’d suggest not checking the dictionary, but instead picking up some Marxist literature such as ‘Anti-Duhring’ by Engels and ‘The German Ideology’, by Marx and Engels.
So that’s all for now, folks.
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