It is clear to anyone who looks around the world today that religious ideas still retain huge influence among millions. Why do people still look to religion, and what attitude should socialists take? Religion 'is the opium of the people' is one of the most famous quotes from Karl Marx.
Usually this is taken to mean that Marx thought people were simply duped, and that religion, just like heroin addiction, kept believers passive and stupefied. Marx argued that the ruling class used religion to sanctify its wars, laws and class divisions.
He said that religious ideas obscured a real understanding of the social forces which cause exploitation and oppression. But Marx also understood that it was not enough to say that religion was a false doctrine.
It was necessary to look at religion's social roots and the needs it fulfils. He argued that 'man makes religion-religion does not make man'. Marx argued that religion was used as an agency of oppression, but at the same time expressed the aspirations of the oppressed:
'Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of the spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.' People look to religion because it fulfils a need in a world which is full of competition, misery and oppression. In a society divided by class, where the majority of people have no real control of their lives, religion can seem to provide a solution. This is why religious ideas have often found mass support at times of great upheaval.
This has happened during massive industrialisation and in many developing countries today. Such changes create massive turmoil, as people are forced from their traditional way of making a living on the land and thrown into an uncertain future in big sprawling urban centres.
Often people live from hand to mouth, finding only casual work or forced to sell goods on the streets. Religion can seem to provide a sense of stability against the desperation of life in the towns-whether it was in the slums of Victorian England or in shanty towns today on the edge of huge cities like S‹o Paulo in Brazil or Tehran in Iran.
Religion is able to appeal to both the ruling class and the oppressed because its doctrines are ambiguous. Different social forces and individuals have always seized on different aspects of religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam to justify their interests and hopes.
History is full of examples where people who adhere to the same religious beliefs have ended up on opposite sides in great social conflicts. So in Europe over the last 2,000 years the ruling class have used the Bible to justify their rule and the wars they fought.
In the First World War, for example, the German Kaiser spoke of fighting in the name of god and the Kaiser, while British rulers urged a fight for 'god, king and country'. There are many quotations in the Bible to back up the rulers' drive for war. Samuel is one of the greatest of the Old Testament prophets in the Bible. He says, 'Now listen to what the Lord Almighty says... Go and attack the Amalekites and completely destroy everything they have. Don't leave a thing. Kill all the men, women, children and babies.'
At the same time other quotes from the Bible have been used to support rebellion against the established order: 'He has brought down mighty kings from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with empty hands.'
In the English Revolution in the 17th century, the royalists who supported the king did so in the name of god, while those who opposed them looked to the Bible to find a theory of change and support their rebellion. The same sort of contradictions can be found in Islam. Today Islam is the official ideology of pro-Western dictatorships, such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
But it is also the inspiration of many of the movements fighting back against oppression, such as the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. On the one hand Islam offers a degree of protection to the oppressed, but on the other hand Islam provides the ruling class with a bulwark against revolt from below.
So some would argue that the Koran stresses that the rich have to pay a 2.5 percent Islamic tax for the relief of the poor, that rulers should behave in a just way, and that husbands must not mistreat their wives. But others stress the way the Koran says that if the poor take from the rich it is theft, that disobedience to a 'just' government is a crime, and gives women fewer rights than men.
Disputes over the Bible and the Koran are not just about the religious doctrine itself. Rather they are an expression, and justification, for the interests and hopes of particular social groups.
So what attitude should socialists take towards religion? Socialists who look to the ideas of Karl Marx do not have a religious or mystical view of the world, but are atheists. At the same time socialists will fight alongside anyone who is fighting back against the system, no matter what religious views they hold. We understand that, while religion can be a vehicle for reactionary ideas, many mass movements which are fighting oppression take on a religious coloration.
There is a huge difference between the Christianity of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, which supported apartheid, and the black churches which campaigned against it. Similarly the religion of the slave owners in the Southern states of America which justified slavery cannot be judged in the same way as that of the black slaves who practised religion on the plantations.
The church was often the only way slaves could gather together collectively and discuss ideas. Often religious songs and spirituals had a double meaning. For example, the song 'I Am Bound For Canaan' meant more than reaching heaven-it symbolised reaching the Northern states and freedom.
In Latin American countries many of the movements fighting against dictatorial regimes have taken a religious form, often called 'liberation theology', and many priests have been assassinated by right wing death squads. There is a massive difference between the Catholicism of someone like Archbishop Romero, who was murdered by a right wing death squad in El Salvador, and the Catholicism of the pope and the Vatican.
Socialists are totally on the side of those fighting back against state violence and repression, whether it is in Latin America, the Middle East or elsewhere. Similarly today in Britain socialists have joined with Muslims and Christians to fight against the war in Afghanistan, even though we do not share religious views. Socialists are in favour of complete freedom of religious worship, and defend people's rights to practise religion.
As the Russian revolutionary leader Lenin said, 'The state must not concern itself with religion. Religious societies must not be bound to the state. 'Everyone must be absolutely free to practise whatever religion he likes, or to profess no religion, ie to be an atheist, as every socialist usually is.' But while advocating religious freedom, socialists put forward a distinct view which tries to win people away from religious explanations of the world. This is not only because we want to fight for a better world here and now on earth. It is also because religious ideas can confuse the struggle, and can ultimately be an obstacle to liberation.
This is what happened in the revolution in Iran in 1979, for example. After the fall of the Shah the regime led by Ayatollah Khomeini set out to halt the working class movement, and his regime introduced vicious repression against the left in Iran. In Poland in the 1980s the Catholic church was for many a symbol of the revolt against the old Stalinist regime. But that same Catholic church is now part of the state and pushes extremely reactionary ideas, such as restricting women's abortion rights.
Socialists want to win people to seeing the working class as the force which can bring about revolutionary change in society. We are fighting for a world which removes the need for people to find solace in mystical and religious ideas.
That society is one that will meet not only our material needs, for decent food, shelter and clothing, but also our need for creativity, art, and emotional and spiritual satisfaction.