The Preacher and the Slave
Long-haired preachers come out ev’ry night,
Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right:
But when asked about something to eat,
They will answer with voices so sweet;
You will eat (you will eat) bye and bye (bye and bye)
In that glorious land above the sky (way up high)
Work and pray (work and pray), live on hay (live on hay),
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die (that’s a lie)
Jared Diamond in his ‘The World Until Yesterday’:
'A set of traits distinguishing a human social group sharing those traits from other groups not sharing those traits in identical form. Included among those shared traits is one or more, often all three, out of three traits: supernatural explanation, defusing anxiety about uncontrollable dangers through ritual, and offering comfort for life's pains and the prospect of death. Religions other than early ones became co-opted to promote standardized organization, political obedience, tolerance of strangers belonging to one's own religion, and justification of wars against groups holding other religions.'
Religion, then, involves belief in supernatural forces (gods, saints, and so on) but also serves functions such as providing consolation against the harshness of class society and justifying particular political views.
A frustration shared by socialists and atheists is the persistence of belief in a god to explain the world. This is partly because ‘god’ is such a quick and easy answer to so many important questions: How did we get here? Why should I behave morally? Why am I here? While science has provided a comprehensive explanation of how and when we got here, and what we are made of, it is less certain when answering the question, why? Human beings seem to have a need for religion, maybe it's a kind of security blanket in a troubled world. Socialists don't seek to ban religion since it would do little good and would probably be counter-productive. Why create martyrs?
There are two ways of opposing religion. One is to refute it as untrue, to show that there are no rational grounds, because there is no convincing evidence, for believing either in “the persistence of life after death” or in “the existence of supernatural beings”. This is the approach of the Secularists and Freethinkers and of course what they say, is true, but this leaves the impression that religion is merely an erroneous belief It leads to concentrating on refuting religious beliefs as such in a purely ideological battle while leaving everything else, including class society and capitalist relations of production, unchanged.
The second way to oppose religion is to explain its origins, development and role in materialist terms as an ideological product of the changing material economic and social conditions under which people have lived. This approach reveals religion to be a reflection of people’s lack of control over the conditions governing the production of their material means of survival and that it survives precisely because people lack this control. On this analysis, opposition to religion cannot be separated from opposition to the economic and social conditions that give rise to it. Religion won’t disappear simply because secularists and freethinkers, or for that matter socialists, refute it as untrue. It will only disappear when people are in a position to control the production of their means of life. This requires the end of the class ownership of the means of production and the end of production for the market with a view to profit and their replacement by common ownership and production directly and exclusively for use. In other words, religion cannot disappear until the conditions of which it is an ideological reflection disappear.
Belief in religion – any religion – warps and hampers the ability to think objectively, particularly about social and political issues such as those now filling the newspapers (Islam, immigration, cultural clashes, etc.). In order to grasp the urgent need for and the possibility of achieving major social change one must first be able to think clearly and to understand just how capitalism works – or, quite often, doesn't. This is something men and women are much less able to do if their heads are full of religious fantasy and their thinking is correspondingly irrational. The disappearance of all religious beliefs, whether “We poor sinners here below” or “Allah's will be done!” should be seen as an essential part of our struggle for socialism and not just as a fringe irrelevance. 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, parsons, rabbis and mullahs
Richard Dawkins’ approach to the question of religion is, like religion itself, an idealist one: religion is false, rationally unsustainable; morally enfeebling and a basis for hatred and division. Presumably Dawkins sees the death or meaningful diminution of religion by means of secularist persuasion just as religion hopes to resist secularisation by what it sees as ethical persuasion. Unlike Dawkins, the pioneers of scientific socialism sought to show religion as a reflex of the social organisation of society. It wasn’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. Dawkins sings the praises of science and in a general sense socialists join in the
chorus. But science, possibly more than most other disciplines, is a prisoner of capitalism. The scientists have to beg at the table of the system for funding to pursue their projects; their sponsors are usually largely mammoth capitalist enterprises bent on discerning means of further enriching their directors and shareholders or capitalist governments dedicated to the overall concerns of national capitalism. Just like the rest of us, the scientist is a prisoner of the crazy logic of the system and just like the rest of us if his or her dedicated function does not hold promise of profit for those who directly or indirectly employ them, irrespective of the potential social benefits of their work, it will be denied funding.