Socialism and religion

By Owen Richards

The visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Sydney in July for the Catholic World Youth Day festival has focused attention on the relevance of religion in the 21st century. One of the most bizarre spectacles of the 400,000-strong event was the grisly worship of the 83-year-old corpse of Italian Catholic Pier Giorgio Frassati, flown in for the festival. Venerated by the Catholic clergy as a model Catholic youth, Frassati died of polio in 1925.

The prevalence of some of the most obscure medieval mysticism at a state-sponsored mass event made possible by the most advanced means of mass communications and transport poses a number of questions. How could such obscurantist medieval superstitions continue to coexist with scientific advance and modern technology? How does religion maintain its hold on modern society and how can its influence be undone?

‘Opium of the people’

Karl Marx, the founder (along with his colleague Frederick Engels) of scientific socialism, was the first to explain religion from a strictly scientific standpoint. He is famous for his expression, “Religion is the opium of the people”. What exactly did he mean by this? The words are taken from the introduction to his 1843 A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. It reads: “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.”

This one quotation contains a concise summary of the Marxist view of religion. Religion can express the alienation and degradation of class exploitation and oppression in contradictory ways — as submission or as protest. It can be the downtrodden “sigh” of the defeated and enslaved, giving consolation and comfort in a “heartless”, “soulless world”, but also express a form of social protest against oppression. Nevertheless, it always represents a fantastic, distorted or upside-down vision of world. That’s why Marx refers to it as an “opiate”, as “illusory happiness”.

Where does this fantastic vision of the world come from? Marx developed his own view based on the pioneering work of Ludwig Feuerbach, one of Marx’s philosophical contemporaries in the “young Hegelian” movement in the 1840s. According to Feuerbach, all of the powers attributed to gods are actually worldly powers that human beings — unfamiliar with a scientific knowledge of the world — unconsciously project into an imaginary spiritual world apart from the material universe. While the Bible said God created man in his own likeness, for Feuerbach it was the opposite.

The earliest religions, reflecting human powerlessness over nature, projected spiritual powers onto natural phenomena that they did not understand. So stars, planets, rivers, mountains, animals, etc., all took on magical powers and were feared and worshipped.

As humanity developed its productive forces and corresponding control over nature, the forces of nature began to lose their spiritual powers. However, a new power arose that was not understood — class-divided society. Gods started to appear instead in human form, with all of humanity’s individual and social powers. With the highest development of religion — monotheism — gods became the singular God, representing all the vast alienated powers of humanity in one omnipotent spiritual entity.

This was Feuerbach’s critique of religion — that it was a distorted spiritual reflection of terrestrial relations. Marx went further, explaining that it was not enough simply to criticise religion in order to disabuse its followers of their mistaken beliefs. Where Feuerbach explained religion as a reflection of human society, Marx pointed out that relieving humans of their religious hallucinations required criticism of the secular world that gave rise to this illusory world in the first place. Further, it was necessary to change, through revolutionary practice, this secular world, to eliminate its class contradictions and thus undermine the material basis of religion.

In other words, unless we overthrow class society and its exploitative social relations, religion will persist as “the heart of a heartless world”. However, that does not imply that socialists don’t carry out a theoretical struggle against religion and its false understanding of the world. Marxists do consciously defend a scientific, materialist view of the world, a view that is completely at odds with religion. Some people can be won from religion to a Marxist or materialist view of the world through theoretical argument. But for the vast majority of society, it will take a radical overthrow of existing social conditions, enabling them to exercise to the full their own creative powers, to undermine their belief in a supernatural power.

Such a change can come only from a social revolution that establishes genuine social control over industry, participation in planning the economy and society and a level of material abundance that frees human beings from material insecurity. It will also take a long time for humanity fully to dispense with the spiritual baggage that centuries of religious belief have left behind.

Socialist practice

The contradictory essence of religion necessitates a flexible approach from socialists. The Stalinist perversion of Marxism, and the bourgeois professional anti-Marxism of the universities and mass media, have spread the one-sided idea that Marxists advocate repression of religious freedoms. This is simply not true.

The Marxist position on religion is well summed up by Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin’s classic pamphlet Socialism and Religion and his 1909 speech to the Russian parliament, “The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion”. In the latter, Lenin, like Marx, argued that Marxism is fundamentally opposed to the false world view of religion, stressing that “Marxism is materialism. As such, it is relentlessly hostile to religion … we must combat religion.”

But Marxism goes further. “It says: we must know how to combat religion, and in order to do so we must explain the source of faith and religion among the masses in a materialist way. The combating of religion cannot be confined to abstract ideological preaching, and it must not be reduced to such preaching. It must be linked up with the concrete practice of the class movement, which aims at eliminating the social roots of religion.” The main cause of religion, continued Lenin, “is the socially downtrodden condition of the working masses and their apparently complete helplessness in the face of the blind forces of capitalism”. To eliminate religion therefore ultimately requires pulling up this deep social root.

Once in power, how could a socialist government go about this? Firstly, Marxists advocate the complete separation of church and state. Religion should be a private, not a state matter. Following the materialist understanding that religion has its social roots in oppression, socialists understand that any attempt to repress religious belief and practice will fail. Instead, a Marxist government can best combat the influence of religion through the battle of ideas, through purely ideological weapons. These weapons are the promotion of a scientific outlook on all questions and making possible the fullest and freest advance of scientific research and development.

However, this ideological struggle will be best facilitated by the carrying out of a thoroughgoing struggle against the economic slavery that religion bases itself on. This means the most complete development of the socialised means of production operated according to rational social planning. Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky summed it up this way: “We are driving out mysticism through the use of materialism, above all by broadening the collective experience of the masses, increasing their active influence on society, expanding the framework of their positive knowledge, and it is on this general basis that, where necessary, we also aim to direct blows against religious superstitions.”