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"The heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions"
Explaining the hold of religion

December 17, 2004 | Page 8

RELIGION IN America is a hot topic in the media--and not just because this is the holiday season.

The conventional wisdom about the 2004 election is that ordinary Americans are highly conservative, concerned most of all with "moral values." Just as the votes for George Bush are explained as mass approval of the Republican Party's right-wing agenda, people's religious beliefs are seen as a sign of their contentment with the world and their place in it.

As ALAN MAASS explains, Marxists draw the opposite conclusions--not only about the meaning of the 2004 election, but about the appeal of religion beliefs in the richest and most technologically advanced country in the world.

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RELIGION WAS one of the first questions that Karl Marx and Frederick Engels faced as they began to develop their ideas about socialism.

Thinkers before them had already subjected religion--primarily Christianity--to vigorous criticism. But Marx and Engels went further, expanding the critique of religious ideas by trying to explain their roots in people's lives.

"The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man," Marx wrote in his most famous statement on the 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. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness."

The most important point for Marx and Engels was that human beings created religion--so religious beliefs must have social causes.

In early societies, humans didn't yet have the means to understand the forces of nature. So they imagined that these forces had a conscious power--inventing human-like gods that governed the wind and the weather, the rivers, the stars and the earth. Modern religions like Christianity likewise contain stories designed to reconcile people to conditions that seem beyond their control.

With the rise of hierarchy and classes in human society, religion became the means for rulers to justify the system that they presided over--often, by declaring themselves gods, or at least in close communication with them. Thus, while Christianity first emerged as the religion of a persecuted minority, it was later transformed into the official ideology of the Roman Empire and numerous other societies since.

This is why the effect of religion is generally conservative, providing a justification for the status quo. But the appeal of religion for the have-nots in society isn't its conservatism, but the fact that it seems to be a solution to the suffering and oppression of this world--in a distant afterlife, but a solution nonetheless.

The only way that masses of people will reject the future imaginary solution offered by religion is if they see a real solution in the here and now--in the form of a struggle that challenges oppression and injustice.

Marx and Engels' materialist understanding of society rejects religious ideas. But this doesn't mean that socialists want religion to be suppressed--either in this society or a new one.

On the contrary, socialists stand for freedom of religious ideas--including the freedom to be an atheist and reject religion. As the Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg put it, people should be able to "hold what faith and what opinions seem likely to him to ensure happiness...No one has the right to persecute or attack the particular religious opinion of others."

Ultimately, Marxists believe that the appeal of religion will wither in a new society, as the injustices and oppressions of capitalism are uprooted. As Marx wrote: "The religious world is but the [reflection] of the real world...[which] can, in any case, only then finally vanish when the practical relations of everyday life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellowmen and to Nature."

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RELIGION DOESN'T always appear in the modern world as a conservative force. This is because religion is "the expression of real distress and a real protest against it."

Usually, the solution preached by religion is in the next world--and the social role of religious ideology and religious leaders is to get people to accept this one in the meanwhile. But religion can also be the vehicle for political and social struggles.

Indeed, because religion was the central component of social ideologies until the last hundred or so years, people involved in struggles to change the status quo typically used religious language to explain their actions.

The abolitionists who fought against slavery before the Civil War are a good example. Faced with a government firmly controlled by slaveowners, the abolitionists rejected the Constitution as stained by the crime of slavery, and instead looked to a higher law--God's law--to "remember them that are in bonds as bound with them."

Thus, the militant abolitionist John Brown explained his guerrilla raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va., as an extension of "the Golden Rule, 'Do unto others as ye would that others should do unto you.'" "That is why I am here," he told an interrogator after his arrest. "It is my sympathy with the oppressed and the wronged, that are as good as you and as precious in the sight of God."

Religious ideas and language turn up in more contradictory movements and circumstances--and need to be understood in terms of their connection to material conditions and the reality of people's lives.

For example, the spread of Islamic fundamentalism isn't primarily because Muslims are drawn to the religion's reactionary beliefs about, for example, the inferiority of women. Rather, the source of its growth is that Islamism appears to be the only consistent opposition to imperialist domination.

This isn't to say that socialists should hide our criticism of religion or dismiss the importance of differences on the question. Even in the best of circumstances, religion is contradictory--and its conservative pull often becomes most obvious precisely when people involved in struggle shake off old ideas and prejudices, and become more radical.

Thus, while the Black church played an important role in the early civil rights movement--both ideologically and organizationally--as the struggle progressed, the figures most associated with religion came to be identified with the moderate wing of the movement, challenged by activists who were moving to the left to become revolutionaries.

As the Russian revolutionary Lenin wrote, socialists "demand that religion be held a private matter so far as the state is concerned." But in the working-class movement, a socialist organization "cannot and must not be indifferent to lack of class-consciousness, ignorance or obscurantism in the shape of religious beliefs...We shall always preach the scientific world outlook, and it is essential for us to combat the inconsistency of various 'Christians.' But that does not mean in the least that the religious question ought to be advanced to first place, where it does not belong at all."

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OF COURSE, expressing a desire for justice is exactly opposite of the way that the right wing uses religion in the U.S. today.

Instead, conservatives use the appeal of religion to cloak their agenda in an aura of righteousness and morality--which helps them win support for unjust policies even among the very people who will be their victims.

Obviously, there's a world of difference between religion for Jerry Falwell and religion for Martin Luther King. Even so, the emergence of the Religious Right--or at least the reason it can gain a broader hearing--is connected to religion's role as the heart in a heartless world.

Consider the Republicans' drive to introduce faith-based welfare initiatives. The aim is to undermine the idea that government should provide a social safety net--which, of course, contributes to making the rich richer and the poor poorer. But the reason such initiatives can gain wider support is that they offer concrete assistance to people in need--at precisely the same time as government programs are cut back.

The conservatives' faith-based programs not only counsel the poor to accept their lot, but they provide material things--help for the jobless, food banks and soup kitchens, shelters for the homeless, programs for "at risk" youth.

The Democratic Party establishment is convinced that the only way to respond to the Republicans' election success this year is to "get religion," as one commentator put it--to copy the Religious Right hypocrites by promoting conservative ideas in the guise of morality and values. That's a sure recipe for more failures ahead.

Our movements from below can counter the conservative hold of religion--by speaking to the real grievances and bitterness that lie beneath. That means providing a real alternative to the heartless and soulless world of capitalism--a socialist society organized on the principles of solidarity, freedom and justice.

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