The question of how to respond to religion, and the fact that a lot of working-class people (particularly in the so-called “developing world”) hold religious beliefs, has been a tricky issue for revolutionaries for... well, forever really.
Karl Marx famously described religion as an “opiate”, comparing it to a drug that people take to make themselves feel better rather than actually dealing with the root causes of their problems. He said that it promised people a “heart in a heartless world” but only provided an “illusory happiness”. We think that was pretty much spot-on then and remains pretty much spot-on now. Plus the actual drugs are better these days anyway, so why would we need ones that come with backwards moral codes and dietary laws attached to them?
The overwhelming weight of scientific discovery has edged out any real possibility whatsoever that some realm — spiritual, supernatural, call it what you want – might exist beyond the material universe. It’s true that, because of the omnipresent yet intangible nature that religious believers claim their deities have, it’s not possibly to conclusively “prove” that god doesn’t exist.
But the “chocolate teapot” analogy is useful here; we can’t “prove” that their isn’t a chocolate teapot orbiting the sun because we’ll never get close enough to find out. But everything we know about a) chocolate, b) teapots, c) sun and d) the nature of celestial orbits tells us that this is impossible. It’s the same with god.
We also have to look at the social role that religion plays. It’s true that it can help people with tough lives make it through the day. It can be a source of comfort and hope. It can offer an escape from the misery of everyday life. But all of that is also true of crack cocaine. And while I can understand why people might get hooked on crack I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as a good idea.
But religion’s actually worse than this. Whenever religion enters the political sphere it reveals itself as a thoroughly barbaric force. Whether that’s Islamist governments in Iran or Saudi Arabia using religion to justify the stoning of women, whether it’s jihadi terrorists flying planes into buildings, whether it’s Christian fundamentalists attacking gay people or abortion clinics, whether it’s Jewish zealots in Israel building settlements on Palestinian land, whether it’s Hindu sectarians attacking Muslims in India, the role of religion in politics has been, throughout history, categorically very bad indeed.
Unfortunately, organised religion is currently on the offensive. It wants more and more of public life to be subordinated to its narrow views. In the past few years we’ve seen bigots from Christianity, Islam and Sikhism protest against various forms of artistic expression in Britain and elsewhere against Europe. In one instance, Sikh fundamentalists were able to get a play, ‘Bezhti’, effectively banned because it depicted a rape in a gudwara and was mildly critical of the Sikh clergy.
I haven’t seen the play. I don’t know whether its content was “offensive” as the protesters claimed. Frankly I don’t care; no-one should have the right not to be offended! Religious beliefs are beliefs like any other; they should not be entitled to any special protection from criticism (even “offensive” criticism).
People should be free to believe whatever they like, and if they choose to believe that the moon is made out of cheese or that it’s evil to be gay or that women should cover their hair or even their faces if they want to go outside, then the rest of us should be free to tell them that they’re wrong.
As opponents of the system that makes people’s lives so miserable that they need to turn to “opiates” in the first place, we should focus our main fire on the root causes rather than the symptoms.
We should also defend anyone who is subject to racism or state persecution because of their religion. But we also need to understand the role religion plays when it becomes an organised political force, and fight against it.