How capitalism uses religion

Printer-friendly version

It was once hoped that the more scientific explanations contributed to a rational understanding of the world, the less there would be a place for superstition and religion. This was a naive view that failed to take into account the origins of religion in humanity’s alienation, and the ability of the ruling class to make use of any ideology in the defence of its dominant position in society. The use of religious ideologies, not just Christian and Islamic, but all the other varieties, is a worldwide phenomenon. The following article, written by a close sympathiser of the ICC, focuses on the situation in Britain. 

There continues to be a rash of stories about the position of religion in British society. Although these mainly focus on Islam and everything from the adoption of sharia law to the wearing of the veil, there have also recently been many interventions from Anglican bishops, controversy over catholic adoption agencies and the well-publicised case of the British Airways worker fighting for the right to wear a crucifix as a symbol of her Christian faith. From a seemingly different angle there has been the contribution of Richard Dawkins, renowned crusader for rational thought, and his book, The God Delusion.

These episodes are only the latest in a new ideological campaign by the British bourgeoisie. Religion has been increasingly politicised since Tony Blair came to office (and later said that he was only answerable to God.) There has even been speculation about his de facto conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism. At the last General Election, the issue of abortion was thrown into the spotlight with Michael Howard saying he backed a reduction in the legal limit from 24 weeks to 20 weeks. The Catholic Church promptly called for its congregation to support the Tories, and it was openly asked if British politics was going to follow along the route of America where religion is increasingly a dominant political and social force.

But why is the role of religion growing in Britain, a country that is supposedly one of the most secular in the world? Religion has long been a useful tool for manipulating the exploited classes. Although the bourgeoisie, in its revolutionary youth, waged a vigorous battle against religious ideology it quickly accommodated itself to religion once it became the ruling class. The working class, as it began to assert itself on the historical stage also launched into its own critique of religion. So successful was this effort to throw off the shackles of faith that Marx talked in his era of religion being a dead issue for the working class.

Today this is not the case. As the Dutch revolutionary Anton Pannekoek wrote "As soon, however, as it became evident that capitalism could not solve the life problems of the masses ... The world was seen again full of insoluble contradictions and uncertainties, full of sinister forces threatening civilisation. So the bourgeoisie turned to various kinds of religious creeds, and the bourgeois intellectuals and scientists submitted to the influence of mystical tendencies. Before long they were quick to discover the weakness and shortcomings of materialist philosophy, and to make speeches on the ‘limitations of science' and the insoluble ‘world-riddles'." (Lenin as Philosopher)

Pannekoek was analysing the situation of a capitalism that had only just begun to enter its period of decline. Today, capitalism is wallowing in irrationality of every description. Not only has Christianity become more and more dominated by an openly reactionary fundamentalism, but bourgeois ideology is ever more saturated with increasingly bizarre and absurd ‘new age' philosophies.

The British bourgeoisie is no stranger to these crackpot sects. Its own most decomposed elements supplied the world with the delights of a revived form of ritual magic in the shape of the Golden Dawn sect, the more openly depraved form of which was popularised by Aleister Crowley, and were also the origin of the whole Neo-Pagan movement as typified by Gerald Gardner.

Nonetheless, although all these movements are useful in hampering the development of a class conscious understanding of the world, some sectors of the British ruling class seems to be envious of their American cousins' ability to mobilise whole sectors of the population through its use of Christian fundamentalism. Indeed, the strength of the religious right is so strong in the US that it affects the ability of the ruling class to put the best team in power at election time.

The pre-election abortion debate initiated by the Tory right-wing was itself quickly aborted by the more lucid sectors of the ruling class. However, the cancellation of this ‘dummy run' didn't mean the bourgeoisie was giving up its sanctified ideological weapons. Rather, it meant adapting and honing the rather crude right-wing form to suit the specific political and social situation in Britain. As a result, we've seen increasing debates about the future of faith-based schools and particularly about Islam.

Behind the scenes, however, the Christian fundamentalists continue to advance. In Britain they are, as in much of the rest of the world, one of the fastest growing sectors of Christianity. Fundamentalists are now deeply enmeshed in Labour's education policy where their religion has become the central ideology for both private and state-funded ‘faith schools' and this has been accompanied by revelations about the level of teaching of American-style ‘creationism' in the UK.

The spread of these most transparently reactionary forms of religion is causing problems for the bourgeoisie in the Higher Education system as well, with increasing numbers of students - even science students - openly rejecting the theory of evolution. This has serious implications for the future of science in the UK and has met with a firm response from the bourgeoisie's scientific representatives - hardly a surprise when the ruling class has positioned itself as a leader in stem cell research and other controversial pursuits that cause outrage among religious communities.

Although the question of religion has importance for the working class, the bourgeois framework of the debate offers nothing to the proletariat. Religion is not simply the product of ‘ignorance', ‘stupidity' or errors of epistemological method. Although these are factors, religion in the final instance is the product of a social system that reifies humanity's own social powers into objects beyond our control. Religion cannot be combated on a purely intellectual terrain as Dawkins tries with his rationalist ideology. It can only be fought through the development of the class struggle. Only the proletarian struggle can unite human beings to a sufficient level to allow them to become conscious of their social powers and begin to dominate and control them rather than being unconscious slaves of their own activities.

In a more immediate sense, the proletariat must not let itself be drawn into debates about whether this or that religious grouping should be protected or suppressed by the bourgeois state. These campaigns are designed to rally people around either this or that fraction of the bourgeoisie or to defend the capitalist state against growing religiosity or creeping secularism. The proletariat has no business defending the bourgeois state against anything - its only goal is to destroy it. DG 14/11/06

General and theoretical questions: