The visit by Pope Benedict to Britain last week raised questions over how to take on right wing views and deal with religion.
The Catholic church—and Pope Benedict in particular—are responsible for many crimes, most notably the cover-up of systematic child abuse, attacks on gays and lesbians, and the propaganda against a woman’s right to choose.
And it’s not true to suggest—as the Pope did—that there is an “aggressive secularism” in society.
It’s understandable that people such as those abused by Catholic priests turned out to protest at the Pope. But the response summed up in the placard of some protesters that “Religion is stupid” is unhelpful at best. It’s the response of the smug liberal feeling smarter than the ignorant masses who swallow superstition.
There is a real danger today: simply denouncing religion without thinking of its social context can fuel the vicious Islamophobia that Muslims face. It misses the fact that Catholicism, like all religions, has produced both support for dictators and those who have struggled against them.
Arguing that the main problem in the world is religion would mean that the material reality of capitalism, imperialism, inequality and exploitation less important than the ideas in people’s heads.
It is simply not good enough to view religion as a delusion that has gripped the minds of millions for centuries. Rather, religious ideas like all other ideas are social and historical products.
The embodiment of this error is the thinking man’s Ian Paisley—scientist Richard Dawkins—who believes people are “lumbering robots” driven unconsciously by “selfish genes” that use them as means for their reproduction.
He has no explanation for religion other than it is bad and people listen too much to their parents.
In contrast, Karl Marx famously described religion as “the opium of the people”. He meant that it is stupefying and addictive—but that is not all he said.
“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
It is no wonder people take refuge in belief in supernatural forces in the storm that is class society.
Marx was scathing about liberals who elevate criticism of religion over politics. For example in the 19th century some argued religion was the main enemy and that Jews should renounce religion before they supported their fight for emancipation.
Marx turned on the failings of liberal politics, saying that the demand for a secular state was nowhere near enough, because it wouldn’t get rid of religion. He argued that religious faith was an effect, not a cause, of general oppression. Focusing on the religious question diverted energy away from real social struggle and into purely sterile debate.
Liberals view human society as rigidly divided between a public “political life” and a private “civil society”. Political reform should be restricted to the former, they claim, leaving untouched economic arrangements such as private property and wage labour (“civil society”).
Marx explained how the supposedly atheistic demands served to conceal religious assumptions—that Liberals believed, then as now, in a vision of human society composed of atomised private individuals who own property and are motivated by self-interest.
In contrast, Marx called for the radical generalisation of “political emancipation” into a “human emancipation” that would transform economic relations and society. This socialist political project would be based on a materialist understanding of the world, not just an atheistic one.
The Russian revolutionary Lenin summed up what is wrong with Dawkins and his allies: “The combating of religion cannot be confined to abstract ideological preaching, and it must not be reduced to such preaching. It must be linked up with the concrete practice of the class movement, which aims at eliminating the social roots of religion.”
That means winning people to the recognition that collective action can create a better world. Not hectoring them for being stupid.