Marxism and Religion

Marxism and religionMarx explained that “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.” The second half of this statement is the most quoted, but together they show Marx’s all-sided understanding. Marx says the reason why many people hold religious ideas is due to the oppression and exploitation they are subjected to. Lacking any material explanation for this, many look to mystical ideas as a form of comfort. However, this also means religious ideas can play a useful ideological role for the ruling class. Workers can be told not to worry about their position in society today. Instead, if they just ‘turn the other cheek’, they will be rewarded in the afterlife.

While religion can play a reactionary role, Marxists do not claim it can be defeated purely through argumentation. To rid society of religion, the material conditions for religion must be removed. Therefore, only when we have a democratically and rationally planned economy, based on the needs of us all, rather than the profit of a few, will we begin to see the withering away of religious ideas. So, Marxists are in favour of religious freedom, but argue people will decide for themselves to abandon religion in a socialist society.

Marxists do not prevent religious workers joining the fight for socialism, but they do not have a neutral position on religion within the revolutionary organisation. As Lenin said, “without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement.” A Marxist organisation would be rudderless without the guide of the revolutionary philosophy of Marxism. Religious workers wanting to join a Marxist organisation must therefore be convinced by the ideas of materialist dialectics, which are the best guide and tool for understanding and thus changing society. 

At this festive time of year, we share the following lead off by Alan Woods on the origins of Christianity, which provides a Marxist answer to 2,000 years of myths, lies and distortions.

What does 25 December have to do with the birth of Jesus Christ? As it turns out, nothing. But the official early history of Christianity has always contained more fiction than fact. At a meeting in London, Alan Woods offers a historical materialist analysis of the origins of Christianity, demonstrating how a revolutionary movement was eventually co-opted and corrupted by the ruling class of its day, and turned into an instrument of reaction. As Marxists, we are fighting for a better life and goodwill between all men: not in heaven, but here on earth. This can only be accomplished through revolution. We apologise for the first few minutes of this talk being cut off.

To mark the holiday period, we republish the following introduction by Alan Woods to a German edition of Karl Kautsky's excellent text, The Foundations of Christianity. Originally published 23 September 2011, Alan outlines the significance of this work, and gives an overview of Kautsky's historical materialist account of the origins of the Christian faith. 

All religions have their fundamentalists; there are Christian fundamentalists, Hindu fundamentalists, Jewish fundamentalists, Buddhist fundamentalists and so on. They all play a reactionary role, and they are all growing in number. All of them believe they are the holders of the absolute truth, while all others are heretics or even the work of the devil himself. They are all used to sow division among toiling people around the world. The phenomenon affects all countries to one degree or another.

On Friday 25 May, Ireland went to the polls to decide whether to repeal the 8th amendment of the constitution, which denied women the right to abortion as long as the unborn fetus had a heartbeat. Under these laws, which are part of the legacy of the Catholic Church’s domination of Ireland, abortion was illegal, even under the horrific circumstances of rape, incest or fetal abnormalities. The repeal of the 8th amendment is an epoch-making slap in the face against the Catholic Church and the establishment in the Republic.

Mother Teresa (1910-1997) has been beatified by Pope Francis I, after a series of miracles (where the role of modern medicine was conveniently swept under the rug) were fished out from her lifelong record running clinics for the poor in India. These years of crisis and revolution have been a lean period for the Catholic Church, which is forced to churn out saints to maintain its appeal.

John Pickard’s book delves into the history of the three most important religions in the Western world, and this has profound political implications. If you think about it, religion dominates so many people’s lives from their birth to their death and yet, incredibly, so little is known about how religion, in particular Judaism, Christianity, and Islam really came about.

The election of Pope Francis marks a turn in the prolonged crisis of the Catholic Church. It is important for revolutionaries to understand the reasons for the ongoing struggle within the Church. Far from moving to the left, Francis is trying to entrench the Church in defence of the present system and shield it from revolution and the class struggle. Francis is calling for the Church to renew itself and to move towards the poor. This is raising expectations within the popular masses of the Church but will inevitably collide with the brutal reality and the vested interests of the Vatican apparatus.

The resignation of Pope Benedict and the global furore around the selection of Pope Francis, demonstrated the grip the Catholic Church still commands in the minds of the masses in many areas of the world. Cain O’Mahoney looks at the origins of Catholicism in the Dark Ages, and how the ‘Universal’ Church - unconsciously - acted as the ‘subjective factor’ in the transition from the slave based society of the Roman Empire to feudalism in Western Europe.

In a period of crisis and decline of capitalism, to many people religion is the one certainty to cling on to. But if the Pope himself is no longer convinced he can keep his position until his death, this illusion of solidity begins to break down. The effect of the surprise announcement of his retirement by Pope Benedict XVI on the consciousness of over a billion Roman Catholics is going to be that of a spiritual earthquake, and it is surely going to have political consequences too.

In a world of constant misery and suffering, Christianity promises happiness in the "afterlife." Instead of the promise of plenty in heaven, Marxism wants to build a paradise in this life. This is a recording of a festive debate where Alan Woods, leading member of the International Marxist Tendency and author of "Reason in Revolt: Marxist philosophy and modern science" debate Peter D Williams, Catholic writer and apologist (Catholic Voices) about which body of ideas offers a way forward for the world today.

A cheap, crude, anti-Islamic film entitled The Innocence of Muslims, produced and promoted by reactionary Christian fundamentalists in the United States and posted on the internet in July, has led to demonstrations in many countries around the world, including attacks on US embassies and in the case of Libya to the killing of four US diplomats at the US Consulate in Benghazi. We look into why all this is happening.

On Tuesday December 7th the University of London Union Marxist society concluded its autumn term programme of discussions with a special 'festive debate' will on the philosophies of Marxism and Christianity and their ability to further the human race.

The Pope’s visit to Britain comes in the midst of the most serious crisis of capitalism since the Second World War, with a growing mood of discontent among the workers. No doubt a little help for the British Establishment in times like these from the Almighty will always come in handy. The Pope is also hoping to boost the fortunes of the Church after it has been shaken by scandals in one country after another.