Not just opium

Issue: 113

Paul Blackledge

A review of Scott Mann, Heart of a Heartless World: Religion as Ideology (Black Rose Books, 1999), £13.99

How should socialists relate to social movements whose aims are informed by religious ideas? A moment’s consideration of this problem is enough to suggest that a simple answer is precluded by the very diversity of such movements.

The recent emergence in the West of a powerful current of Islamophobia which has been used to justify war abroad and authoritarianism at home, and of a strong Islamicist reaction to this current, has posed the danger that socialists might use crude atheist critiques of Islam to justify siding with imperialism. Nevertheless, the reactionary content of many religious ideas means that socialists must avoid the opposite danger of painting Islamic opponents of imperialism red. Given the complexity of this political context, it is essential that socialists have access to some rudder by which they can steer a course between either tailing fundamentalism or capitulating to imperialism.

An obvious prerequisite for any serious socialist engagement with such movements must be that we make concrete analyses of concrete situations: the particular social content of any religious movement must be the keystone by which we judge it. With respect to the relationship between Islamicism and imperialism noted above, it is obvious that the main enemy is globalising imperialism. On a more mundane level, when I sat with members of a local church group on the train to last year’s demonstration against the G8 in Edinburgh, the fact that their presence on the demo was informed by the belief that we are all equal in the eyes of god meant that to have opened our conversation with an atheistic denunciation of the idea of god would have been childishly sectarian. Rather than take this approach, our conversation centred on the problem of how best to build a movement to overcome global poverty, and I noticed a definite radicalisation of their opinion on the way home after they had experienced their first mass demo.

Needless to say, it is not beyond the realms of the possible that I might be forced to confront this couple again in less propitious circumstances—on opposite sides of the abortion debate for instance—where the reactionary side of their religious beliefs might come to place us on opposite sides of the barricades. This example is enough to recognise that how socialists would relate to this couple specifically, and religious movements more generally, is dependent on the concrete content of the movements informed by religious ideas. However, while examples such as this reflect the power of a simple intuitive approach to such movements, it remains the case that we need to go beyond intuition if we are to provide a compelling alternative to other perspectives.

For instance, in his The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins lends his own scientific authority to the contemporary demonisation of that dreaded beast ‘fundamentalism’ when he argues that religious thought is the main enemy of contemporary enlightened opinion. If socialists are to go beyond this type of one-dimensional denunciation of religion, they need to outline an alternative framework by which religion is to be explained.

This is exactly the task taken up by Scott Mann in his Heart of a Heartless World: Religion as Ideology. The starting point of Mann’s analysis, as is evident from the title of his book, is Marx’s critique of religion. Famous for arguing that religion was the ‘opium of the people’, a line which when taken out of context was used by Stalin to justify his very own ‘war on drugs’, Marx actually outlined a much more nuanced analysis of religion.

Whereas Enlightenment thinkers had first pointed to both the falsity of religious beliefs and their role in propping up reactionary regimes, and following from this had, Dawkins-like (first time with grandeur, second time as farce!), aimed at overthrowing such superstitions with the power of argument, Marx was more interested in the social basis of religious belief. The full quotation, taken from Marx’s Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, from which both the above line and the title of Mann’s book are taken, reads thus:

‘Religion…is the fantastic realisation of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. 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. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.’

Thus Marx, as Mann shows with admirable clarity, argued that to struggle against religion in the manner of Dawkins is at best to tilt at windmills. For if the source of religious belief is real human suffering, then to imagine overcoming the former without dealing with the latter is to lapse into a state of illusion every bit as incoherent as the belief in god itself. For socialists this would be no mere intellectual error. Rather it is precisely because those at the bottom of society tend to suffer most that they are most likely to embrace religion. To create a barrier between these people and revolutionary parties by insisting that they discard their beliefs before they join would thus be political suicide: fine for the proud sectarians who are happy with life in the political wilderness, but disastrous for serious socialist organisations that hope to win mass support.

It was precisely for this reason that Lenin was against making atheism a condition of membership of the Bolshevik Party: he realised that religious ideas would only wither away slowly after their sources in human suffering had disappeared. More generally, Marx’s approach provides socialists with a framework from which they are able to keep their independence from religious ideas, while refusing to reify these ideas as the key problem in the modern world. In a capitalist system marked by exploitation, inequality and war, socialists recognise that religion, like other ideologies, can reflect the critique of these barbarities or become an apologist for them, and often can do both at the same time. We therefore engage with religious movements not primarily as the embodiment of abstractly false ideas, but in the light of how they relate to these the real key problems of our age, fighting alongside those who hold these beliefs in so far as they confront these problems, and criticising them in so far as they do not.

Mann’s analysis does not stop with Marx. He attempts to synthesise these insights with others taken from Darwin and, especially, Freud. If Darwin overthrew religious explanations of the emergence of life, and Marx provides a social explanation of why after Darwin many continue to hold religious beliefs, Mann argues that Freud provides the basis for an explanation of how individuals come to embrace the view of an all-powerful god, and indeed manage to square the belief in god’s love with a recognition of ‘evil’ in the world. He suggests that these beliefs are a form of fantasy wish-fulfilment in adults that operate as unconscious defence mechanisms, the source of which can be traced back to earlier childhood relations with their parents.

Indeed he attempts to synthesise Marx and Freud by arguing that human conscience can be shown to be no subliminal link to god because what is considered to be right and wrong changes over time. Rather conscience is best understood as a reflection in the child’s eye view of parental authority, and as such is historical: as the image of parental authority evolves over time so too do ideas of right and wrong and the image of god.

Mann’s book includes fascinating discussions of how the image of god changed through history; from the worship of the goddess in pre-class societies in Europe to the overthrow of this religion and its replacement by male gods following the emergence of class societies after the last ice age. He also has interesting things to say about the rise of Catholicism and Protestantism, and even an entertaining, if speculative, discussion of Jesus.

While it is unfortunate that he does not discuss Islam, the theoretical strengths of the book ensure that it should act as an important starting point, complementing books such as Paul Siegel’s The Meek and the Militant and Michael Lowy’s The War of Gods, for anyone wanting a materialist understanding of religion. My only regret is having not noticed its existence earlier. Indeed, because it was published in 1999 there is a good chance that your local bookshop will not have a copy. Fear not, it is still in print and Bookmarks can order a copy for you.