Marxists once saw themselves as the vanguard not only of the proletariat but of science and progress, as the bulwark against superstition and reaction. In our postmodern age, we’ve retreated from this, questioned these values and notions, and abandoned the aegis of “science” and “progress” to the bourgeoisie. Our doubts about science and progress were not entirely unjustified, for in the hands of the bourgeoisie they are robbed of their liberatory potential. In its relentless pursuit of profit, the bourgeoisie has revolutionized the means of production and communication time and again. Rather than freeing us from want and widening and deepening democracy, as these advances can, it has instead brought us to the brink of environmental catastrophe, overseen the concentration of wealth into fewer and fewer hands through the immiseration of billions, and strengthened the state surveillance apparatus beyond the wildest dreams of the Stasi.
It is no surprise, then, that at a time such as this, when socialists are struggling to cast off the traditions of one dead generation, there are those who would burden us with the traditions of another. Those who would have us exchange the costumes and battle slogans of the Bolsheviks for the robes and psalms of the Apostles. Their rallying cry might well be “One step forward, a thousand steps back! To the Communist message of Christ!”
Both the legacy of Soviet-style state-sanctioned atheism and the neoconservative politics of the so-called New Atheists—whose militant bourgeois atheism is nothing new—have turned off many socialists. Their resulting distaste for militant atheism, combined with pessimism about mobilizing the working class behind the banner of atheism, has led some to call for a reconciliation of socialism and religion.
There are two types of “socialists” who seek such a reconciliation: fools and knaves. Fools genuinely believes that socialism is ordained by scripture, that their conservative co-religionists are unfaithful to their religion by not joining the progressive cause. Just like their conservative counterparts, progressives find what they want to find in scripture and ignore the inconvenient rest. Knaves, on the other hand, are atheist but either cynically see the working class as hopelessly enthralled by superstition or have a soft spot for spirituality, for those few poetic phrases in scripture that might be spun for socialism. They declare: “If Mohammed will not come to the mountain, the mountain must come to Mohammed”; if the religious will not come to socialism, socialists must come to religion.
These socialists have misjudged the nature of religion, the degree to which the working class is enthralled by religion, and the possibility and desirability of a reconciliation between socialism and religion.
It is understandable that, in a world plagued by suffering, people would turn to spiritual means to alleviate their suffering in the absence of material means. “Religious suffering,” as Marx put it, “is the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.” It is in this expression of protest against real suffering that we find some socialist-sounding phrases in scripture, but this in no way makes scripture a sound basis for socialism. Religion is not just an analgesic—it isn’t just “the opium of the people.” While it provides consolation to the exploited and oppressed, it also justifies exploitation and oppression. It is a product of suffering, one which reinforces and reproduces suffering.
Religion, at one and the same time, consoles sufferers and justifies suffering here-and-now by the promise of salvation hereafter. It consoles the exploited and oppressed and justifies exploitation and oppression here-and-now with the promise of retribution and justice for exploiters and oppressors hereafter. It justifies suffering on the basis of sin. The material roots of suffering are hidden behind a spiritual facade. Suffering is presented not as an alterable product of this world, but as unalterable punishment by God or karma for our moral transgressions. Just as the bourgeoisie declares that “there is no alternative” to capitalism, religion declares that there is no alternative to suffering, to exploitation and oppression, to class society. We humans are presented as so morally depraved as to be incapable of liberating ourselves—we can only hope for salvation through the grace of God.
Religion commands that the few, the privileged, ameliorate the lot of the many—the exploited, oppressed, poor, propertyless, suffering masses—through charity. Charity serves to ease suffering while leaving unaddressed the roots of suffering. It renders the condition of the exploited and oppressed slightly less intolerable, and eases the conscience of the ruling class. It gives the poor a few scraps from the tables of the rich to keep the poor from demanding a seat at the table. A few scraps do not make for socialism.
Religion is partly a product, as Engels observed, of “the world historical defeat of the female sex.” It is produced by, reinforces, and reproduces a perverse patriarchy in the household, where each man is promised mastery, if not over himself, then at least over his wife and his children. It is created by and re-creates the division of labour between the sexes. In doing so it divides the working class, setting up hierarchies within the exploited and oppressed. It gives some of the exploited and oppressed a taste of mastery, of domination, and thus attempts to give them a stake in maintaining the system of exploitation and oppression.
Socialists cannot compromise over sexism. To be a socialist is to be a feminist, because the working class’s struggle for its self-emancipation cannot be separated from women’s struggle for self-emancipation. After all, as even Mao realized, “Women hold up half the sky!” Women are half, if not more than half, of the working class. We must let go of the antiquated image of the male industrial worker and the female peasant, especially since there has been an unprecedented feminization of the manual labour force. We cannot struggle for the emancipation of the whole working class while embracing an ideology that would see half of society remain enslaved.
We cannot claim to be working toward the self-emancipation of the working class—and through this the emancipation of the whole of humanity—if we appeal to authoritarian, homophobic, misogynistic, and generally misanthropic texts and institutions for aid and inspiration. There cannot be a reconciliation of socialism and religion; to call for such a reconciliation is to call for a reconciliation of emancipation and slavery. For every fine-sounding phrase in scripture or out of the mouth of a priest, there are countless more vile words. Religiously inspired deeds of cruelty far outnumber acts of charity.
The bourgeoisie has managed to cast off the shackles of religion, by elevating itself from the squalid conditions that give rise to religion. It has already turned its back on religion, in deed if not in word. For all its public professions of piety, behind closed doors it is as atheist as any of us. What Cicero said of the ruling class of his day, of which he was a member, is no less true of the ruling class of today: “It is difficult to deny that the gods exist, in public, but in private it is perfectly easy to do so.” Appearances must be maintained. “A tyrant,” as Aristotle remarks in the Politics, “must put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion. Subjects are less apprehensive of illegal treatment from a ruler whom they consider god-fearing and pious. They less easily move against him, believing that he has the gods on his side.” It is profit that dictates policy, not piety. The bourgeoisie bows before Mammon, not Yahweh.
Having emancipated itself from religion, the bourgeoisie has seen, like all ruling classes before it, the utility of religion in making the exploited and oppressed easier to exploit and oppress. Religion aids in the ruling class strategy of divide and rule. Behind its fine-sounding phrases of “universal brotherhood” and “love,” religion sows division and discord. It divides the world into saints and sinners, saved and damned, orthodox and heretic, adherents and infidels. Through such division it hinders the development of class consciousness. Just as the bourgeoisie have put aside their national, religious, ethnic, and other differences and prejudices to come together and act collectively as a class in waging a one-sided class war against the working class, we must aid the working class in putting aside its differences and prejudices, including religious ones, in fighting back against this relentless assault.
Socialists who call for a rapprochement with religion are behind the times—they have overestimated the strength of religion. Religion is dying and has been for some time. Most people, including most of the proletariat in the advanced industrial countries, are de facto, if not outright, atheists. Religion has been reduced from its once central place in people’s lives to what holidays they celebrates, what sort of food they eat—if that. Citing opinion polls to the effect that most people, even in the advanced industrial countries, identify as religious or believe in God is misleading. What matters isn’t what people say, but what they do, and what they don’t do. Increasingly they don’t identify with religion, they don’t know religious dogma, they don’t abide by religious commandments, they don’t attend church, they don’t listen to priests.
One need only look at the statistics on religion for some of the advanced industrial countries to see this trend. France provides an interesting example of this secularization phenomenon: church attendance among self-identified Catholics is extremely low. One survey reports that 17% of self-identified Catholics don’t believe in God; among self-identified Catholics who do believe in God, 79% described “God” as a “force, energy, or spirit” and only 18% as believe in a personal god. I know the Catholic Church is desperate to inflate its number of adherents, but last I checked, the Vatican hadn’t renounced the Nicene Creed. The United States is a curious exception to this secularization phenomenon with church attendance and religious observation rates being far higher than in other advanced industrial countries, but even the United States hasn’t been immune to secularization.
We must not conflate here religion and the particular idiosyncratic superstitious beliefs of people. The two aren’t equivalent. Doing so might give us the false impression that religion is as strong as ever, that it has just taken on a new form. “Organized religion” is contrasted by some with “spirituality,” which is seen as the true essence of religion, of which organized religion is just one manifestation, a distorted manifestation. Religion is not reducible to mere belief in the supernatural, in a “higher power,” in “ultimate reality.” The psychological and sociological are not so easily divorced.
Take, for example, various New Age beliefs. This form of “spirituality” bears closer resemblance to the pseudoscience of homeopathy. The latter attempts to gain authority by draping itself in the garbs of science, the former in the garbs of religion. Absent organizational structure and its accompanying worldview, we are no longer dealing with religion. Superstition alone does not make for religion. From a Marxist understanding,
Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification.
To say this is not to appeal to the essence of religion, rather only to point out that too broad a concept of “religion” isn’t analytically useful. Self-identified “Catholics” or “Christians” who cling to a vague belief in a “higher power,” “energy,” “spirit,” or some other such nonsense don’t use this belief as an organizing principle for their lives. They are not religious in any significant sense of the term, they cling to the labels and traditions of Catholicism because of culture, but they do not believe in or live their lives according to Catholic dogma.
While it finds religion useful, capitalism also undermines religion. Globalization, modernization, and urbanization have brought previously isolated communities the world over into contact with one another. There has been an unprecedented intermingling of peoples, cultures, and religions. It is much easier for religion to keep a stranglehold on the minds of isolated, ignorant peasants (or suburbanites) living in largely homogenous communities than it is to do the same to the minds of the modern urban proletariat living in contact with a variety of ideas and people.
That being said, the death throes of religion has not been peaceful. The contradictions wrought by capitalism through its constant revolutionizing of the means of production, through its constant destruction and re-creation of capital—combined with the colossal failure of 20th-century socialism—has resulted in the emergence of a reactionary religious movement the world over. “Reactionary” both in the sense of a reaction to the increasing immiseration wrought by capitalism and in the sense of seeking a return to some previous pious age.
Religion thus serves to undermine the struggle for socialism—the struggle for emancipation—because it misidentifies the causes of our present problems. It sees sin as the cause of our suffering and seeks to undo the gains of bourgeois liberalism by turning back the clock on women’s rights and LGBT rights. It seeks to restore the holy family, the hierarchy in the home ordained by God, as a solution to all social ills.
Just as militant bourgeois atheism will not deal religion its deathblows, neither will capitalism, for neither can abolish the conditions that give rise to religion. So long as capitalism persists, so too will religion.
In this struggle against religion we must go beyond bourgeois militant atheism, old and new. We must not, as Lenin warned,
fall into the error of posing the religious question in an abstract, idealistic fashion, as an “intellectual” question unconnected with the class struggle, as is not infrequently done by the radical-democrats from among the bourgeoisie. 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. It would be bourgeois narrow-mindedness to forget that the yoke of religion that weighs upon mankind is merely a product and reflection of the economic yoke within society.
Bourgeois anti-religious propaganda inverts cause and effect, symptom and syndrome. It misidentifies religion as “the root of all evil” when it is a symptom of the alienation, exploitation, oppression, and suffering wrought by our state and society. Religion is not, as the bourgeoisie would have it, a delusion to be dispelled by argument. It is an alienated projection of our hopes and fears, our aspirations and apprehensions, which cannot be brought to an end by an act of will or reason alone, but only by abolishing the conditions that give rise to this alienation. The abstract struggle against the superstructure of religion—its metaphysics and morals—cannot be won without the concrete struggle against its infrastructure.
Religion persists in spite of the theoretical assaults against it because it continues to play a practical social function. Churches, mosques, synagogues, temples of all sorts, religious schools, “faith-based” charities: these institutions are the substance of religion, its metaphysics and morals mere shadows cast by them. It is not by swinging at shadows that we will strike the substance. Nor will we abolish religion by prohibition, as the bourgeoisie and socialists alike are sometimes wont to do. As the anti-religious campaigns of the past have taught us, as soon as the direct assault against religion subsides, religion creeps back into society.
It is only by rendering the social function of religious institutions obsolete and unnecessary that we will abolish religion. How? By abolishing the conditions of poverty and ignorance to which religion is a response, to which it is a false panacea which only perpetuates the diseases for which it claims to be a cure. In other words, by abolishing capitalism.
Universal health care, mandatory universal free education, public libraries, mass media, effective social programs that render charity unnecessary, the creation of communities in public space that allow people to come together without having to retreat into the halls of churches—these have done more to destroy religion than all the theoretical tracts and propaganda pamphlets combined. This is evidenced by the weakness of religion in the countries in which social democracy was strongest, where the working class managed to win for itself these material concessions.
While there is a place for anti-religious propaganda in the struggle for socialism, it must go beyond bourgeois anti-religious propaganda. Where the bourgeoisie scratches the surface, we must get to the root. Where its militant atheism has been theoretical and abstract, ours must be practical and concrete. The struggle against religion isn’t distinct from the class struggle. “No number of pamphlets and no amount of preaching can enlighten the proletariat,” as Lenin said, “if it is not enlightened by its own struggle against the dark forces of capitalism.” It is through class struggle that the proletariat will cast off the shackles of the old society, including the shackles of religion.
What does this mean in practice? While we shouldn’t shy away from speaking the truth about religion, exposing it as an illusion (and often a pernicious illusion), there is no need to pointlessly antagonize believers as some bourgeois militant atheists are wont to do. Struggle against religion mustn’t take the place of class struggle. After all, actions speak louder than words. What better way to illustrate the emptiness of spiritual salvation than with material liberation. What better way to undermine the empty hope of a better life hereafter than by improving life here-and-now.
We must fight with workers to ameliorate their material condition so that they will have no need of spiritual solace. We must fight for universal health care so that no one need ever recourse to futile prayer in place of medical treatment. For mandatory comprehensive free education and an end to the indoctrination of children, so that no child may ever again have their intelligence and curiosity destroyed by superstition. For comprehensive social services, so that no one need every again find themselves dependent on charity. For the full value of our labour, so that it is never again appropriated by others who render themselves masters over us. For a widening and deepening of democracy, so that we may govern ourselves and never again bend the knee before bosses, kings, gods, priests, or presidents.
Socialists must, in lieu of narrow political struggle, engage in social and economic struggle. Wherever there is class struggle, on whatever front—in workplaces, in schools, on the streets—socialists must be there. We have for too long focused on narrow party-building, on building the perfect revolutionary party that is ready to immanentize the revolution when the time is right. We must abandon the false ideal of ideological purity.
Religious belief cannot serve as a litmus test for cooperation in class struggle. “Unity in this really revolutionary struggle of the oppressed class for the creation of a paradise on earth is more important to us than unity of proletarian opinion on paradise in heaven,” as Lenin understood. And while we should always preach the scientific worldview, 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.
We must instead build and join movements, attempting to bring the otherwise disparate struggles together. We will not do this by imposing ourselves on the existing social movements from above, but must demonstrate in practice the effectiveness of our analysis within the movements. The emancipation of the working class must be an act of the working class itself. Socialists can no more free the working class from religion than they can from capitalism—the working class must free itself from these shackles. We are not a modern-day Moses leading the workers to a promised paradise; we must give up these vanguardist, “Leninist” illusions.
At the same time we are not, or shouldn’t be, in the business of selling socialism. Religion is a fraud. It substitutes salvation in the afterlife for liberation in life. Our task is to aid the working class in its struggle for self-emancipation, and this means telling the workers the truth. Our demand to end religion “as the illusory happiness of the people” isn’t so that they may endure suffering without illusions. It is a demand, in the words of Marx, “for their real happiness.” We sound the call for workers to give up their illusions about their conditions in order to give up conditions that require illusions.
Truth alone will not set anyone free, but it is a prerequisite for struggling effectively. It is within class struggle that the proletariat forge a new world within the womb of the old, that they prepare themselves for their world-historic task of becoming the next, and last, ruling class.