In a famous but misunderstood quotation, Marx wrote: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation." It is, he concluded, "the opium of the people." Opiates hide the pain of physical disease without curing it. Religion, which promises divine forgiveness and a better life in the next world, conceals the pain inflicted by poverty, hunger, and the other social diseases of this world. 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.
Present-day society is wholly based on the exploitation of the vast masses of the working class by a tiny minority of the population, the class of the landowners and that of the capitalists. It is a slave society, since the "free" workers, who all their life work for the capitalists, are "entitled" only to such means of subsistence as are essential for the maintenance of slaves who produce profit, for the safeguarding and perpetuation of capitalist slavery. 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.
Religion is one of the forms of oppression. Burdened by their perpetual toil for others, by want, the alienation, and their impotence in their struggle against the exploiters inevitably gives rise to the belief in a better life. All their lives they are taught by religion to be submissive and patient while here on earth. The main cause of religion 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. 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.
Both science and religion are attempts to explain the universe. Materialism holds that everything that exists comes from matter and its movements. For example, a material substance, the brain, is required to generate ideas — including ideas about supernatural beings! The physical world precedes the world of ideas, and the world still exists even if we stop thinking about it. Religious doctrines are idealist. They attribute the existence and workings of the stars, the earth, and living organisms to the intervention of a deity or spirit. Science, on the other hand, is materialist. It posits that these things exist and operate as they do not because of supernatural forces, but because of laws of nature that can be studied and understood.
Religion is of little use in explaining why society operates the way that it does, beyond "that's what God wants." In fact, since the rise of class society, the major religions of the world provide justification for what the ruling class wants: support for its privilege to exploit. While it finds religion useful, capitalism also undermines religion. Globalisation, modernisation, and urbanisation 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.
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. Just as militant 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. 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. Nor will we abolish religion by prohibition, 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. We must fight with workers to ameliorate their material condition so that they will have no need of spiritual solace, so that we may govern ourselves and never again bend the knee before bosses, kings, gods, priests, or presidents.
Religion is not a private affair. The Socialist Party is an association of class-conscious men and women for the emancipation of the working class. Such an association cannot and must not be indifferent to lack of knowledge, ignorance or mysticism in the shape of religious beliefs. We are driving out mysticism through the use of materialism. Socialism is not a defense of the status quo but a critique of it, and a scientific one. Just as natural scientists seek to understand the laws that turn one form of matter or energy into another, so too do socialists seek to understand the laws that turn one form of society into another. Socialism is materialist because it proceeds from the basic observation that human social organisation is concerned first and foremost with satisfying the survival needs of its members. In the process, humans act on nature with continually expanding technical skills and knowledge. Over time, these advances in technology, broadly defined, force epic changes in social structure.
The division of society into classes was one such transformation, leading to an entrenched conflict of material interests between different groups. Socialists believe that just as the force holding down a volcano eventually succumbs to the greater force beneath it, these conflicting class interests engender struggles for power that lead periodically to social eruptions — to revolution. The Socialist Party understands that the answer is not to try to stamp out religion, but to make the revolutionary changes in society that will liberate and uplift humanity in the here and now. The Socialist Party strives to achieve a world where peace and freedom are not the rewards of life in heaven, but the reality of life on earth.
There is a type of “socialist” who seek a reconciliation with religion by declaring it to be a “private matter” and then there is another “socialist” who declares “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. 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. 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.
These two types of “socialists” have misjudged the nature of religion. 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. 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. Religion aids in the ruling class strategy of divide and rule. Behind its fine-sounding sermons 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. 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.