Resurgent religion threatens gains of struggle

Submitted by Matthew on 8 January, 2014 - 11:55

We continue our debate on attitudes to religion.

What’s your view? Email us at

Religion is pre-modern in origin, bereft of any explanatory power in the wake of scientific knowledge of the universe. It is primitive — “... preserving the character of an early stage in the historical development.” (Oxford Dictionary)

Historically religion has played many roles. It has encoded laws by which societies have been controlled to the benefit of the ruling class. It has aided the social cohesion required by human society. It has given explanations for the unknown. It has given a moral justification for conquest and revolt.

In modernity many of these roles are taken by secular science. However the rotting remains of religion have proven too useful to the ruling class to be binned. Interwoven with custom, prejudice, and fear, religion and its institutions have remained a powerful agent for backwardness — counter-revolution in Iran in 1979 and Spain in 1934, for example.

The oppression of women is the oldest form of human oppression and religion is its oldest vehicle. The founding text of every world religion relegates women to inferior status and this attitude is reflected in the attitude of fundamentalist religion today (fundamentalist here means “literal interpretation of scripture”).

The anti-women demos of the Hindu BJP in India, the attempts by Hamas and the Taliban to impose the veil through violence, the Catholic Church’s opposition to women’s right to choose in Ireland, the attacks on girls’ education in Pakistan, and the cultural/religious practice of female genital mutilation are just a tiny fraction of modern examples.

Most alarming, though, is that the situation is getting worse. Like a zombie, religion is coming back and is on the march. On the streets of Paris where homophobic priests and fascists unite against gay marriage, and in mainstream politics in Turkey, Egypt and Sri Lanka, where Buddhist monks have organised anti-Muslim pogroms.

Religious fundamentalist activists all have different gods and would like to wipe each other out either by conversion or a bomb; but what they can all agree on is their hatred of secular society with its sex education for girls or its teaching of science and history without the mumbo jumbo of religion.

In Britain, religious groups have been setting up or taking over state schools; in Pakistan the Taliban shot Malala Yousafzai in the head for wanting to go to school; in Nigeria Boko Haram spell it out in blood. Their name means “Western education is sinful”.

In a period of working-class defeat some people will reach out to old prejudices in desperation. Seeing their chance, the religious zombies will rise, demanding special rights to protect their lies through blasphemy laws, by threats, or acts of violence to protect their gods and prophets, apparently all-powerful but surprisingly still in need of the state to protect them from verbal or written insult. This may mildly worry some ruling-class politicians but others revel in the distraction from class struggle.

Resurgent religion threatens the gains of centuries of struggle and yet the left, who should fight it, cower, too confused by a diet of cultural relativism to act. When confronted by demands for segregated meetings or religious schools they mutter about not being racist and leave children to fight the battle for reason on their own.

Socialists should be in no doubt here — we demand an end to religious schools; across the world we unite with those fighting for secular education and a secular state. We reject the veiling of women and oppose the wearing of the niqab in school, or by those working with children or the public.

We do not apologise for calling religion primitive and we do not leave anyone to fight their battles without solidarity because we are scared of being called racists.


Submitted by Matthew on Thu, 09/01/2014 - 16:47

While the origins of religious belief are "primitive" in the sense of being pre-modern, the same can be said of many other things - music, mathematics, science.

What I think we need to do is distinguish both between religion and science and between different kinds of religion.

Religion in the pre-modern, "primitive" era tended to be almost exclusively polytheistic. The major monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all comparatively modern (a few thousand years old at most) and their political/fundamentalist forms very modern indeed.

The idea that "bereft of any explanatory power in the wake of scientific knowledge of the universe" religion is irrelevant wrongly implies that all religions see themselves as providing alternate theories about the origin of the universe to those provided by science as opposed to providing answers to questions in other fields such as morality and philosophy. I'm also not sure about the idea that "In modernity many of these roles are taken by secular science."

Much of the criticism of religion made by Dawkins et al has the tone of well-educated, middle-class people sneering at the poor because, as a priest put it to the person who recruited me to Socialist Organiser in the early 90's, "now you've been to college, you think you're too clever to believe in God."

Even if you don't believe in God and want to remove religious belief from society, do you think it is tactically wise for socialists to describe religion as "primitive" or "mumbo jumbo"?

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