SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 114 - December 2007/January 2008

Religion and society

New Labour’s promotion of ‘faith schools’, disputes over public display of religious symbols and clothing, the ‘war on terror’ and political Islam, the Buddhist monks’ ‘saffron revolution’ in Burma… religion and religious-related issues are regularly in the news headlines. As The Economist magazine recently remarked, "These days religion is an inescapable part of politics". NIALL MULHOLLAND writes.

DURING THE 19th and 20th centuries, much of organised religion in the west faced declining influence and power. Society became modernised, urbanised and more secular. The organised labour and workers’ movement became a serious challenge to the ruling class, including the main ‘established’, pro-capitalist church hierarchies.

Today, the situation is complex and contradictory. In Britain, an estimated 36% of people (17 million adults) are "humanist in their basic outlook" (British Humanist Association). A 2004 survey found 44% of people in Britain believed in god and 35% "denied his existence". Yet, the 2001 British census showed seven out of ten people ticked the ‘Christian’ box to indicate their beliefs. Books arguing for atheism, like The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, are international bestsellers. Yet, on any one Sunday, more than a million people still attend Church of England services in Britain. Super-exploited immigrants from poor countries also add to church attendances.

While there are at least 500 million ‘declared non-believers’ across the globe, the main ‘world religions’ include 2.1 billion Christians, 1.5 billion Muslims, 900 million Hindus, 376 million Buddhists and 23 million Sikhs, as well as millions of other people who follow other religions and beliefs. The proportion of people attached to the world’s four biggest religions rose from 67% in 1900 to 73% in 2005 and are estimated to rise to 80% by 2050, on present trends.

While organised, ‘traditional’ churches are often in decline in many countries, other churches and religions are growing fast. The Catholic church is wracked by sex abuse scandals and losing support in formerly strong Catholic countries, like Spain, Italy and Ireland, where attendances at weekly mass have fallen below 20%. The Church of England and worldwide Anglican church is divided over the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy and same sex unions. Thirty-five US Episcopalian churches have defected to Nigeria’s Bishop Akinola, who is against gay marriages.

Protestant Evangelical churches, meanwhile, are winning many new converts in Africa, Latin America, western Europe, and in parts of Asia. Evangelicals, charismatics and Pentecostals made up 8% of Europe’s population in 2000, nearly double the 1970 levels. Pentecostalism spreads fast in the favelas of Brazil. Pentacostalism in South Korea grows by 3,000 new members a month; one in 20 people in Seoul is a member.

Islam is also growing rapidly, especially in the Middle East, Asia, in sub-Saharan Africa, and among minority communities in the west. A planned ‘megamosque’ in east London will hold 12,000 people, five times as many as St Paul’s cathedral.

Around half to two thirds of Russians consider themselves Russian Orthodox, a big increase since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. "On present trends, China will become the world’s biggest Christian country – and perhaps its biggest Muslim one too", comments The Economist (3 November 2007).

The numbers of Christians in India are also growing, partly as a result of conversions by formerly oppressed Hindus, the so-called ‘untouchables’. In response, some Indian states have passed ‘anti-conversion’ laws.

Religious ideas maintain a powerful hold, including in the US, the most advanced capitalist country. Though the number of Americans citing 'no religious preference' sits at 14% (20% among young people), an estimated 40% of Americans go to church each week. Around half of the population in the US think their country is especially ‘blessed by god’ and 48% of Americans believe "god created human beings in their present form" in the past 10,000 years.

As well as this, many parts of the world are blighted by religious or religious-related divisions and conflicts. "From Nigeria to Sri Lanka, from Chechnya to Baghdad, people have been slain in God's name" (The Economist). Sectarian divisions between Shia and Sunni Muslims in Iraq have exploded since the US-led occupation, causing huge bloodshed.

Why do people hold religious views?

SOME SECULARIST COMMENTATORS find it inexplicable that people can hold religious views, particularly fundamentalist, creationist ideas, given the wonders of modern science and our increased understanding of the natural world. However, there are many factors relating to people’s religious beliefs including society, class, history, ‘tradition and culture’, identity and politics.

Over 100 years ago Karl Marx brilliantly went to the heart of the matter when he described religion as the "sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the spirit of unspiritual conditions".

In today’s materialistic, dog-eat-dog capitalist society – in a world of wars, hunger, poverty, illiteracy and economic instability – religion still offers refuge to many people. The Sunday service or Friday prayers provide communal consolation in contrast to rampant capitalist individualism. In run-down inner cities and towns, churches often provide some form of practical social welfare for hard-pressed families, particularly after decades of social cuts.

The ‘certainty’ offered by evangelical Christian religions in a volatile world help explain their rapid growth. For Muslims in the west, facing daily bigotry, discrimination, repression and super-exploitation, religion offers a sense of community and identity. Young Muslim women in the west often wear headscarves which were rejected by their immigrant parents. In majority Muslim countries, Islam is seen as a refuge against the spread of western imperialist power and culture.

The growth of religions, as well as cults and superstitious beliefs, is partly a reflection and consequence of the decline of the organised working class and socialist movements over the last decades, particularly following the collapse of Stalinism. When the socialist and workers’ movement goes forward, it provides the working class and poor with a viable alternative to the blind, anarchic forces of capitalism and the profit system’s social, cultural and ideological dead-end.

New religions and mystical ideas, like ‘new age spirituality’, sprout up in the west, indicating the deep sense of alienation from modern capitalism among sections of the middle class and working class, and a search for an alternative to the profit system. Even in supposedly ‘communist’ China, cults have also taken root, such as the Falun Gong. The cult strikes a cord with millions of Chinese who have fared badly in a society where ‘socialist ideology’ is jettisoned by the former Stalinist regime on its road to capitalist restoration.

The growth of political Islam is, at root, due to the terrible social and economic conditions faced by millions of Muslims. Mass workers’ organisations, like the communist parties, failed to carry through the socialist revolution in the Middle East and Asia. Political Islam, which in many cases was encouraged and fostered by western powers during the cold war, and by the Saudi petrodollars promoting Wahhabi interpretations of Islam, partially fills the space created by the failure of the left and Arab nationalism. It is an oppositionist channel for Muslims angered and humiliated by the poverty and oppression they face under dictatorial rule and imperialism.

What are the origins of religion?

IN THE EARLIEST human societies (hunter and gatherer economies) ‘magic-religious’ beliefs reflected an attempt to explain phenomena that had a profound influence on people’s lives, like fires, changing seasons, astronomical events, natural disasters, and the migration of herding animals.

As these early societies developed into class societies, a privileged layer of priests and magicians came into existence. Special institutions and new ideas and morals developed to justify the new social and economic order. Religion became the ideological justification for the enslavement of the majority of people, who were promised life after death as a reward for the misery on earth.

However, Marx pointed out that religion is both an escape from the misery of the world and a protest against its wretchedness. Early Christianity began as a mass revolutionary movement against priestly exploiters and the Roman empire. But purged of its class anger, Christianity was eventually made the state religion and used to make the lower orders accept their situation.

The Protestant reformation reflected the rise of the new capitalist class against decaying feudalism, one of whose main pillars was the powerful church. However, the new European capitalist powers left the churches with some powers and influence, as a way of keeping the working masses ‘in their place’. During the rise of imperialism, Christian ideology was used to help subjugate the colonial masses.

To defend their power and privileges, the tops of the churches openly sided with the exploiters and big business. The Catholic church supported Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany. Evangelical Protestant churches supported various right-wing dictatorships in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s.

However, socialists recognise there is a world of difference between the religion of the poor, such as the majority of poor Muslims in the Middle East, and the ‘faith’ of the ruling classes, like the dictatorial Arab regimes. For the ruling class, religion is useful to divide and rule working people, and to try to pacify the masses.

Religion and the state

THE REPRESENTATIVES OF the ruling class today, like George Bush and Gordon Brown, openly identify Christianity with ‘free market’ capitalism. The established Church of England has even been referred to as ‘the Tory party at prayer’. Bush cited god as one of his reasons for invading Iraq.

Despite the fact that the United States ‘Founding Fathers’ sought to codify the separation of the state and church in the constitution of the US, Bush tries to bolster his support under the banner of right-wing Christian ideology.

Bush supported a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in the US. Under his presidency, funding to right-wing Christian organisations has grown massively, including the backing of ‘faith-based’ programmes in US schools and ‘intelligent design’ which promotes biblical Creationism. Last June, Bush vetoed a bill that would expand federal spending on stem cell research, citing his Christian ‘ethical’ concerns. Yet embryonic stem cell research offers the possibility of potentially vital scientific breakthroughs that can end some diseases and illnesses. The powerful US Christian ‘religious right’ is now mirrored in other countries, such as South Korea’s 200,000-strong New Right movement, which backs a right-wing candidate for the country’s presidency.

Socialists oppose the state granting privilege to any religion, such as the current allocation of 26 seats to Church of England bishops in the unelected House of Lords. We call for the full separation of the church and the state and the repeal of all legislation which, like the blasphemy laws, penalises people on religious grounds.

Since 9/11, pro-big business parties in the west stir up anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant sentiments, as a way to scapegoat minorities for the social and economic problems in capitalist society. Socialists oppose all discrimination, whether on the grounds of religion, sex, race, or nationality, etc. Everyone should have the right to practice their religion or to practice none at all. The starting point for socialists is the struggle for workers’ unity and socialism. To change society requires the unity of the working class, including religious-minded workers, around a socialist programme.

At the same time, socialists oppose the reactionary views of religious leaders and groups, particularly attacks on the rights of women and youth. The Roman Catholic church is led by a very conservative pope, who opposes contraception, divorce, abortion, and gay and lesbian rights. While the Russian Orthodox patriarch, Alexy II, describes homosexuality as "a sin and illness", physical attacks on gays and lesbians in Russia are increasing. Women in ‘Islamist states’ like Saudi Arabia are extremely oppressed.

Religion and the struggles of the oppressed

RELIGION HAS SOCIAL roots and, in turn, reacts upon the class struggle. The class struggle can affect organised religion, especially in the neo-colonial world. In Latin America, the Theology of Liberation shows how the lower ranks of the Catholic church are responsive to the poor and oppressed – four priests were in the Nicaraguan Sandinista government in the 1980s. For this stand, they often face attacks from regimes and from the pro-establishment Vatican hierarchy. Today, "Leftish American evangelicals" are "more bothered about globalisation", comments The Economist, and "Evangelicals backed left-wingers in some of the poorer parts of Brazil".

Young Buddhist monks in Burma, mostly drawn from the poor, were to the fore in protesting against the brutal Burmese regime in September, while the military junta had co-opted sections of the Buddhist hierarchy into the regime, "angering and alienating the younger monks". (International Herald Tribune, 1 October 2007)

But Liberation Theology and other religious-based ideologies did not liberate working people from social and economic oppression. Moreover, the last decades have seen previously radical Christian organisations "increasingly moving away from opposing capitalism per se to restraining its excesses". (The Economist, 3 November) While many people are genuinely motivated to support Christian-based ‘fair trade’ and ‘workers’ rights’ movements, this sticking plaster approach cannot end all the ills of capitalism. This requires building powerful independent parties of the working class and poor, with a socialist programme, that draw together workers from all backgrounds to resist capitalism.

Millions of Muslims look to political Islam as a solution to poverty and oppression. This involves a very wide spectrum, from Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement) in Gaza, and Hezbollah (Party of God) in Lebanon, to the pro-big business, ‘post-Islamist’, Justice and Development Party (AKP) government in Turkey. A section of extremely alienated Muslim youth, including in the west, even look to the terrorism of reactionary groups like al-Qaida. Islamist schools in Pakistan, the madrassas, which are blamed by the west for creating new generations of ‘jihad fighters’, are often the only real opportunity for education for children from poor families.

But all forms of political or ‘radical’ Islam will prove to be a severe disappointment for the masses, as they do not represent a break with the profit system and class exploitation. The masses made a revolution in Iran in the late 1970s, which overthrew the hated Shah regime, only to see it end up in the cul-de-sac of the rule of the mullahs. The horrors of life under the Taliban in Afghanistan show that fundamentalist Islam holds no solution. At the other end of the spectrum, the ‘soft Islamist’ AKP government in Turkey are zealous advocates of anti-poor, neo-liberal policies.

Religion and socialism

NINETY YEARS AGO, the Russian revolution saw the creation of the first workers’ state. This was only made possible by the Bolsheviks winning over the mass of workers and peasants oppressed under tsarism, including different nationalities and the millions of religious-minded peasants and workers.

Prior to the revolution, Lenin developed a principled and sensitive approach to religion. In 1905 he wrote: "The state must not concern itself with religion; religious societies must not be bound to the state. Everyone must be absolutely free to profess whatever religion he likes, or to profess no religion". He also condemned the "pseudo-revolutionary notion that religion would be prohibited in socialist society". Such an approach would be a diversion from the political struggle and would only strengthen religion.

While Lenin pointed out that Marxism defends its materialistic philosophy, the Bolsheviks did not deny admission to their party to religious believers. The concrete demands of the class struggle took precedence. This all-rounded approach of Lenin and the Bolsheviks meant the 1917 October revolution awakened the religious-minded and superstitious peasant masses. An estimated 15% of party members in central Asia adhered to Islamic beliefs.

The obscene riches of the Russian Orthodox church, (whose leaders linked up with vicious capitalist counter-revolution), were taken into state hands for the benefit of all people. The young Soviet Union’s decree of 1918 on ‘freedom of conscience and religious societies’ abolished the huge subsidies the tsarist regime gave to the Orthodox church and all other privileges from the state. The Orthodox church was given the status of a voluntary society, which could accept contributions from their members to engage in their activity. The decree also gave previously persecuted religious sects greater freedom. The Bolsheviks also carried out educational campaigns promoting progressive ideas, and culture and science. But Lenin and Trotsky were always very sensitive to the religious feelings of the poor and oppressed.

A socialist society would transform people’s lives and would see the huge development of science and technique under a democratically planned economy. Religion, Karl Marx said, was made necessary by people’s "unhappy condition" in class society. Marx believed such ideas would lose ground as the social conditions that give rise to them are eliminated. Under a socialist society, Marx predicted, religion will decline primarily due to the advance of "social development, in which education must play a great role".

Under Stalinist counter-revolution in Russia, however, a monstrous, bureaucratic state apparatus developed, and repressive measures were taken against the Orthodox church and believers, as well as against genuine socialists. No free exchange of ideas was tolerated, including religious ideas.

During the second world war, however, an alliance was made between the regime and tops of the Orthodox church. Stalin promoted crude Russian chauvinism and the Russian Orthodox church. In the post-war years, the Stalinist regime largely maintained this alliance with the Orthodox hierarchy, enhancing the authority of the church while carrying out repression of religious oppositionists.

Capitalist restoration in the former Soviet Union in the 1990s saw the return of the power and influence of the Orthodox church hierarchy. President Putin leans on the church to bolster his rule. The church now attempts to impose its religious teachings in schools, stirring up divisions in multi-religious Russia.

The history of the international workers’ movement shows that in the struggle to end capitalism, socialists must do everything possible to involve all workers, especially in countries where religion has mass influence. Socialists can work with religious believers for common political aims.

Today, while standing against religious discrimination and injustice, socialists appeal to workers on the basis of their class interests and in the fight for socialism.


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