Monday, August 29, 2016

To Atheists, Secularists, Rationalists, Humanists and Freethinkers (4/4)

The only reasonable position to adopt towards any religion is one of atheism: unbelief. There is a presumption in favour of not believing fantastic claims. It is up to the believer to present proof for the existence of God or life after death. After all, few are agnostic about Father Christmas, fairies or unicorns; we know they don't exist. The same scepticism should also apply to the extraordinary beliefs of religion. With religious believers, however, there is a willingness to believe despite the lack of evidence. And it is this gullibility which socialists find to be dangerous and objectionable. Faith is the last refuge of a believer. Religious faith, however, would only make sense if what was believed in were plausible. Neither the existence of a God nor life after death are plausible, though faith in them undoubtedly offers solace to many. It can make the unbearable seem bearable. But why should an all-loving God allow so much suffering, so much pain in this world – including the so-called "Acts of God" – earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and the rest? If God really did exist, we have no reason for supposing that he cares for us. For some in recent years, religion has combined with New Age beliefs, largely at the expense of the traditional religions whose emphasis on personal guilt, sexual repression and the inferiority of women have become unacceptable. This pick and mix approach can combine elements from the New Testament, Buddhism, psychoanalysis, paganism, astrology and various other bits of the occult. So why, the persistence of religious belief?

The socialist analysis of religion derives from our basic materialism (not in the acquisitive sense, but how we view the production of wealth in society and the sort of ideas it gives rise to). Historical materialism traces how religions have evolved, from their beginnings in ancestor worship and private property in primitive societies, to established social institutions. For the materialist, in other words, society is not really under human control and humans really are at the mercy of blind, impersonal forces – in ancient times the forces of nature, in the modern world the economic forces of capitalism. Under capitalism people feel, rightly, that they are governed by forces they can't control but attribute this, wrongly, to forces operating from outside the world of experience. Churches of all types are then at hand for the sustaining of fear and superstition. For the socialist alternative to our lives being controlled by impersonal forces, we must bring about a society in which humans consciously control the forces of production. It is on this basis that we can say, rather than being abolished, religion can be expected to (as Engels put it in another context) "wither away". And it can be seen that the socialist case against religion differs from the usual humanist position: there are rationalist superstitions as well as religious. For humanists, criticism of religion is a process towards the eventual "triumph of reason". But they ignore the material circumstances which give rise to superstition.

Some folk claim that it cannot be said that it is a scientific fact that “God does not exist”, on the grounds that it cannot be proved that a non-interventionist god does not exist. Maybe but this depends on what is meant by “exist”.  A non-interventionist god, precisely because it did not intervene in the world of observable phenomena, could not be detected and so to all intents and purposes does not exist in any meaningful sense of the word. As to an interventionist god, science does not need that hypothesis to explain the world of phenomena. Socialists try to operate in the same way that scientists do, by looking dispassionately at the evidence without prejudging the conclusions, by testing theories with prediction, and by challenging assumptions, including their own. It’s not always easy to do, but it’s not that hard either. Socialists are not on an anti-religious crusade but campaign to see the world through our eyes rather than someone else's. Religion is a class issue. We must understand our world as it is, make our own generalisations about it, come to our own conclusions. Religions are not deserving of respect just because they are religions; they must be subject to the same scrutiny as any other belief and cannot hide behind the notion that they are personal beliefs.

Atheists see themselves as defenders of the Enlightenment tradition of respect for reason and evidence against its traditional foe, religion. But they see nothing wrong about capitalism. Socialists share in the Enlightenment inheritance but recognise that the main source of irrationality in the modern world is to be found in the capitalist system of society. For socialists, therefore, the struggle against religion cannot be separated from the struggle for socialism. We fight religious superstition wherever it is an obstacle to socialism, but we are opposed to religion only insofar as it is an obstacle to socialism. Capitalism has many opiates to offer the unwary. Reject the pedlars, reject the product, but above all, reject a society which can create such an unhealthy psychological dependency. We need people that realise that the way society is structured is the result of people’s actions as they come together to produce the material things they need to exist, nothing more and nothing less. Belief in some super-natural force that steers it all would be counterproductive, to say the least. We need people who can critically understand the world and not get led along by conmen with their own agendas.

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