Superstition dies hard. A religious mentality exists in those who have not yet discovered the fact that we are the gods. Prophets, preachers, gurus and mullahs are the illusory masters who people invent to tower over them. The socialist transformation of society will banish the capitalists from the earth and the gods from the skies—or to be accurate from the minds of men and women, where they have exercised their pernicious fantasies for too long. Those who choose to believe in powers beyond will be free to do so in a socialist society. Indeed, without the state to adopt this or that religious dogma as the official one, religious believers will be freer than they are now.
Atheists have increasingly been coming out of the closet in recent years. But will they embrace the “heresy” of criticising capitalism? Atheism is gaining in popularity. Atheists have exposed the errors and outright stupidity of religious thought and have also pointed out the ill effects of religion on society. It is encouraging that atheists are now confidently voicing their ideas and that their criticism of religion has struck a chord with so many people. Religion does not exist in a vacuum. Atheists does no great favour in letting capitalism off the hook. They view religion as an ugly carbuncle upon what would otherwise be a beautiful and healthy body, and hope to lance this unsightly growth. But the carbuncle of religion is more like the ones that plagued poor Karl Marx, as they will always come back.
Why does religious thought continue to flourish in modern capitalist society? Why does “God”—who has been declared dead on so many occasions—keeps popping up. To answer that question we need to consider the relationship between religion and society. More specifically: What is the usefulness of religion as far as capitalism is concerned, and what aspects of life in capitalist society make religious thought appealing to individuals? In a class-divided society, as capitalism so clearly is, religious thought comes in handy for those in positions of wealth and power. It promises workers—who happen to form the bulk of the population—that we will get some pie in the sky (after we die), as a reward for our suffering here on earth. Religious leaders encourage their working class “flock” to stoically accept their existence as wage slaves, going on about how “the meek shall inherit the earth.” The benefits to the ruling class of inculcating workers with such a masochistic outlook goes without saying. Religion may promise that the filthy rich will be punished—but the court date is in the hereafter, not the here-and-now.
The Socialist Party presents an analysis that differs sharply from the religious worldview (and from the views of those who mechanically apply theories of natural science to explain human behaviour under capitalism). Instead of viewing present-day society (capitalism) as unfathomable chaos or an eternal state of affairs linked to our human nature, socialists arrive at an understanding of its fundamental nature as a system driven by the need to generate profit through the exploitation of labour. It is this essence of the social system that accounts, above all, for the selfish or “sinful” behaviour that is so rampant within it. This understanding of capitalism does not exempt socialists from the difficulties of living under it, needless to say, but it does reveal the “method to the madness” — just as science has demystified nature. And this understanding is also a great source of hope. It shows us that we can solve many of the problems we face by moving beyond capitalism — towards a new, cooperative form of society.
In such a socialist society, where class divisions have dissolved and our lives are no longer at the mercy of the market, religion will have lost its basis in reality and its seductive powers will quickly fade away. Conversely, as long as its social foundation remains intact, religion will continue to exist — no matter how many times it has been refuted. Atheists who only fight against religion — turning a blind eye to the hell of capitalism — thus ironically end up prolonging the life of their bête noire. At all costs keep the gaze of the people fixed upon the sky, the ideal world where they cannot see how they are robbed and oppressed; do not let them investigate the material world, where they would soon find the way to material salvation. Such is the useful role of all religion to every ruling class.
It has long been acknowledged by Christian theologians, and by anyone else who cares to study the evidence, that the Bible does not give a coherent account of the life and sayings of Jesus. There are just too many contradictions and inconsistencies within and between the various books which make up the New Testament. Not only that, many of the historical and geographical references involving Jesus are not confirmed by modern scholarship. To the Socialist Party the question whether there existed an historical Jesus of the Gospels is hardly a burning question. Whether the Christ legends has any historical credence or not does not affect the antagonism between religion, as such, and scientific knowledge.
There is nothing inherently improbable in the collection of ancient myths round an historical personage and the attribution to him of the magic commonly believed in at the time. The Socialist Party, however, unlike scholarly professors, do not consider the work concluded when a belief has been traced to a myth. This myth clamours for explanation.
At the birth of Christianity men not only longed for a new structure of society, for peace, justice, and happiness on earth, but they trembled at the expectation of the early occurrence of world-wide catastrophe which would put a terrible end to all existence. Seldom in the history of mankind has the need for religion been so strongly felt as in the last century before and the first century after Christ.
The Pauline religion was only one form of the many syncretising efforts to satisfy humanity’s need of redemption by a fusion of religious conceptions derived from different sources. Christ is derived from a cult god of the Jewish sects, and etymological variations of the name Jesus are shown to be but older words for the Messiah, the mediator, the god of healing, and the redeemer; each with distinct characteristics. It is truly all things to all men.
Socialism is the application of science to the relations between men and women. Socialism, as the science of society, is an essential part of a scientific view of all phenomena regarded as an interdependent whole; and such a monistic view of the universe, with each part in inseparable causal relation to the rest, can leave no nook or cranny for God. The consistent socialist, therefore, cannot be a religious believer. The natural history of religion is a deeply interesting subject, for the association of certain phases of religion with certain political interests is by no means accidental.
As a belief, religion is a manifestation of man’s ignorance of nature’s working, and of the mastery which the uncomprehended natural and social forces have over mankind. As rites and ceremonies it is a legacy of the relatively changeless forms of ancient society, and of the supreme importance of mysterious and venerable custom to the existence of the primitive community. By the inertia of the mind religion tends to live on through newer conditions in so far as it serves some interest. So the successive modifications of religion have been the reflexes of changed conditions and interests, although it has ever been attempted to pour the new wine into old bottles.
This evolution of religion, if such it may be called, is curious in that it is an evolution into thin air. Religious change has usually been more remarkable in what was abandoned than in what was added or retained; and religion from being inextricably bound up with the whole social life of a people, becomes a more and more insignificant reflex of the remaining dark corners of that life.
In primitive societies the non-observance of the ancient, sacred, and mysterious customs meant the break up of social life. What was old was tried, venerated and holy; what was new meant disorder and strife. The innovator was slain. In modern society the methods of producing the means of life are no longer invariable and upon ancient model and precedent, but are in the process of great and continued change. What is old is now often synonymous with antiquated, outworn and useless; what is new is hailed as advance and improvement, and novelty is always in demand. The inventor is less frequently slain. Following lamely after this change the old religious forms crumble slowly and tardily away in spite of the frantic efforts of the priestly interest at restoration or readaptation.
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. To abolish religion is not to end exploitation. The workers have, above all, to dislodge the exploiting class from power, and all else is secondary to this. Not that it is sought to belittle the specifically anti-religious fight, for many a socialist has received from the actively materialist propaganda of the secularists the spark that brightened later into an illuminating, scientific light upon society and led him to socialism. The supreme aim of the workers, however, must be their emancipation from wage-slavery, and the fight against superstition is but one phase of this great fight.