The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d;
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating to the breath
Of the night-wind down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
...For the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach”
Last year N[atalia] and I were in Lourdes. What crudeness, insolence, nastiness! A shop for miracles, a business office for trafficking in Grace.
The Grotto itself makes a miserable impression. That, of course, is a psychological calculation of the clerics: not to frighten the little people away by the grandeur of their commercial enterprise; little people are afraid of shop-windows which are too resplendent. At the same time they are the most faithful and profitable customers.
But best of all is the papal blessing broadcast to Lourdes by — radio. The paltry miracles of the Gospels side by side with the radio-telephone!
And what could be more absurd and disgusting than the union of proud technology with the sorcery of the Roman chief druid. Indeed, the thinking of mankind is bogged down in its own excrement.
Leon Trotsky, Diary in Exile, 29 April 1935
In order to demystify the mystifiers a little, we will here describe things rather than name them.
A very old man dies, at the age of 83. Most of the TV, radio, and newspapers of the entire world go into mourning overdrive, most of it simulated and synthetic.
It is a great event. A great media event. There has been nothing like it since Princess Diana died in 1997. The hysteria built up by a media feeding on itself is very like what happened in the days after Diana died.
He was a great man. A profoundly holy man. He had been very ill lately. His suffering is presented almost as if other dying 83-year-olds have a happy time of it in their last days. But he had been very publicly ill, before the TV cameras of the world, whose coverage of his death began with the pathos of his last illness and built from that.
The old man was a Catholic, a Catholic of Catholics. But mourning is not confined to Catholics. The press and TV catering for the vast majority in Britain who follow no religion, mourn and fuss over his death.
He was nothing less than a saint, so newspapers and TV run by “agnostics” and atheists, by unbelievers and professional scoffers, tell everyone. Pseudo-grief mingles with pseudo-elation. This was a great, a courageous, an inspiring life.
On its front page the Sun, with all the sanctimony it could muster, declared the old man “Our Saint”.
He was conservative, indeed reactionary, in every area, a conservative among conservatives, a reactionary among reactionaries. The liberal press joins in, too. In a vast sea of laudatory coverage over a week, the Guardian allowed only two small contrasting islands of sharp criticism (by Terry Eagleton and Polly Toynbee) to rise above the high tide of heaving slop.
What he stood for and what he did were all but wiped off the record. That didn’t matter now. The dead old man had, over a quarter of a century, been a great media star. His charisma was awe-inspiring, indeed almost supernatural. That is all that mattered.
As if already assembling evidence for having him formally declared a saint by his Church, the TV and press, the liberals too, began to ascribe miracles to “this great man”. Why, it was no-one else but himself, inspired by his militantly pro-capitalist God, who had brought down East European Stalinism. All he had had to do was visit his native Poland to conjure up the great movement of liberation centred on the workers’ organisation Solidarnosc.
Alerted to the importance of the old man, of his life and of his death, millions of people converged on Rome for his funeral.
To the great man’s funeral also came the other great ones of the Earth, kings, presidents, and leaders of religions. The President of the USA and no fewer than three former presidents were there, though none of them is his co-religionist, and some of them, the Evangelical Christian incumbent George W Bush, belong to religions antagonistic to that of the great dead man. Tony Blair, a Catholic in all but name, who may have knelt down beside George Bush to pray for divine guidance before they embarked on the 2003 second Gulf War, was by his side here too.
Prince Charles came, though his mother is head of another religion, and he expects that in due time he himself will inherit that office. So did the president of Islamic Syria, and a representative of the Islamic fundamentalist rulers of Iran.
What did he do in life, this great, good, dead old man? He was for 26 years an absolute monarch, ruling over 1.3 billion people throughout the world, for whom his word was spiritual law. Spiritual law enforced as compulsory ethics by a worldwide army of priests and nuns.
For example, when he banned the use of prophylactics as protection against AIDS — even in Africa, where in the quarter-century of his spiritual dictatorship AIDS has taken on plague proportions — a large army of the great man’s enforcers forcefully told their lay coreligionists that it was a sin against God for a man to sheath his penis in rubber to avoid contracting the deadly virus or infecting his partner with it. That, rather than allow such an abominable practice, which would be a sly exercise in birth control even while it stopped the spread of AIDS, it was better for millions to sicken and die, leaving their children orphans, — sometimes to starve, and sometimes, too, these sinful small children themselves afflicted with AIDS.
Thus the great old man went to his grave carrying with him a lot of responsibility for the suffering and death of millions of human beings. He bore it lightly, for he had no doubt that it were better that as yet uncounted millions should die of AIDS than that one rubber sheath should cover one sinful AIDS-bearing or receiving penis.
He had no doubt that on such things he was God’s representative on Earth — that God spoke through him and that therefore he simply could not be wrong.
He took similar attitudes, though ones less monstrous in their immediate consequences, on all the great questions of social liberalisation.
Lesbians and gays were damnable sinners and bearers of sinful contagion. Women should know that their place in life — and in his Church — was subordinate to that of men.
In his reign his Church did what it could over many years to cover up the fact that the abuse of large numbers of children by his “celibate” priests has been a big aspect of the life of the Church all over the world.
What else did he believe, this great dead good old man for whom the world mourns? What system of belief could lead him to condemn millions to premature death in his crusade against “artificial” birth control?
All his life, he believed that life — he would say “this life” — is in itself worthless, unless it is devoted to preparing for another life in that place “from which no pilgrim returns”. All his life he believed that only now, after his death, would his real life begin.
He lived his life preparing for life after death.
That this other life, which will last forever, will come to each person after death, when our bodies have been cremated or buried under the ground to rot, is, he believed, a certainty. Having shed our cumbrous bodies, “we” will continue in another world, another dimension.
In this afterlife “we” will exist either in a state of indescribable bliss in Heaven, or burn eternally in the fires of Hell, which are as hot as the sun, but, unlike the sun, destined to last forever.
Which of the other worlds each one of us will go to after we die will be determined by how we behaved in “this” life. It depends on the observance of a large number of rules laid down by “God”. Rules like the rule forbidding the wearing of penile rubber shields.
Among the most important of God’s rules are those which demand that we frustrate and try to suppress our own innermost human nature. For our nature is inimical to what is good. It is intrinsically prone to evil and sin.
The strongest root of evil is not, as the old saying has it, the love of money. It is sexuality. Sex is an evil to be endured by some people in order to make children. But all “wilful pleasure in the irregular movements of the flesh” is sinful and evil. Humankind is, left to its own inclinations, evil.
The old man believed that the God he served is a super-being, a sort of celestial Big Brother or Saddam Hussein, or Stalin — a great tyrant figure.
The dead old man believed that God made the Earth, the planets, the Sun, and all the galaxies. That he knows everything about the present, the past, and the future; that he can do anything conceivable, and things inconceivable to mere humans. He believed that this God made human beings “to know, love, and obey him”.
The dead old man’s God is quick to see himself slighted, eager to take offence, terrible in his anger, relentless in seeking revenge against offending humans.
He spends much of his time watching us to make sure we obey his rules, and that we don’t escape punishment if we break them.
He believes in being tough on sin and tough on the causes of sin — humanity.
His idea of clemency and mercy is to confine the lesser sinners for a million or 10 million years in a temporary Hell, called Purgatory, before letting them into his territory.
The old man long ago decided that his own surest route to Heaven was to enrol in the ranks of the professional enforcers of God’s rules.
As a young man, he cut himself off from the chief “occasion of sin” and from common sinful humanity by opting for life-long celibacy, laboriously accumulating credit in God’s bank to pay for the quickest and most direct route to Heaven. Eventually he became chief of all God’s terrestrial enforcers, the one endowed with infallibility in “matters of faith and morals” — the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. Pope John Paul II.
As Pope John Paul II he was a thoroughgoing reactionary, working to undo much of the attempt of the Catholic Church to accommodate to the modern world, beginning with Vatican Council II, in the 15 years before he became Pope. He organised the counter-reformation of the late 20th century.
When 70 years ago Trotsky wrote that the thinking of mankind was “bogged down in its own excrement”, that part of humanity which then considered itself rationalist and socialist maintained a hard and hostile face towards obscurantism in general and organised religion and its ministers in particular.
The Marxists believed that it was the heat of the class struggle which would burn away mass superstition and religion, but they knew that, in order for that to happen, the socialists had to maintain their own contempt for superstition and organised obscurantism, and counterpose to religion a sharp, clear, frequently honed humanist view of the universe and humankind’s place in it.
The almost universal eruption of sentimental nonsense around the corpse of the “Roman chief druid” shows how far reason, humanism, and hostility to superstition have been pushed back by the mixture, characteristic of our times, of economic progress combined with bourgeois intellectual and spiritual regression, and sheer, plain, philosophical funk.
The paradox is that the mass media outpouring of pseudo-grief, pseudo-love and pseudo-moral uplift to shroud the dead Pope in pseudo-grandeur and pseudo-sanctity, occurs when his church in Europe is facing its worst crisis of commitment for hundreds of years.
The flow of young men willing to be priests has almost dried up. In the last 150 years Ireland has sent out armies of priests and nuns as missionaries across the world to spread and sustain the church in places like Africa. Last year, only three dozen Irish would-be priests embarked on training — and not all of them will wind up priests.
In France, the average age of a priest is now 67 years! The infrastructure of the church is crumbling in Europe, though not in the poorer parts of the world, in Africa, for example.
The deeds, doctrines and influence of that dead old man in Rome were, by any humane, liberal or progressive standards, profoundly evil. As evil, vicious and anti-human as the practice — to which the media has recently given attention — of certain African religious groups in Britain that ill-treat and sometimes kill children believed to be possessed by demons. As evil as that, but on a gigantic, world-wide scale. That is forgiven and forgotten in the media circus around his corpse.
The liberal and much of the “Marxist” left is rotted and sapped by the acceptance of ideas and standards derived from “cultural relativism” and “multiculturalism”.
And yet, militant humanism and aggressive atheism were never more relevant to the concerns of socialists than they are now, when social and ecological pessimism and defeatism play such a large part in the conventional wisdom of capitalist society and in the quelling and disheartening of opposition to it.
The lifeblood of religion has been the helplessness and insecurity of human communities before nature, and of individuals and groups in a class-ruled, market-regulated society which can be arbitrary and merciless as the blind forces of nature itself. Tsunamis and earthquakes notwithstanding, humankind has achieved a tremendous power over the forces of nature. We have more power over nature than we have power to exercise conscious control over our own society.
The ebbs and flows of uncontrolled bourgeois-ruled capitalist market forces continuously inflict on vast numbers of people social catastrophe and ruin that destroys vastly more lives, though in a different way, than do natural disasters. Our social irrationality, the fact that we attained the power to bring ecological ruin upon ourselves before we had managed to bring human society under rational human (that is, working-class socialist) control, has undermined the once-widespread and to socialists central belief that human beings, collectively, can fashion a world governed by reason and the humane socialist concerns appropriate to it.
As such hopes and projects have declined, the militant edge of hostility to superstition, of confident and implacable criticism and condemnation of guardians of organised religion such as “the Roman chief druid”, has been blunted, even amongst self-proclaimed revolutionary socialists.
Marxist socialists are not “bourgeois rationalists” who believe that mere propaganda can banish religion and superstition before we have succeeded in eliminating class society. But older Marxists, living in a world in which “official” religion was greatly more all-pervasive than it is today, did understand that they had to work by education and propaganda to create islands of secularism, rationality, and militant atheism within our society, as part of preparing the working-class vanguard that would overthrow capitalism and replace it by rational, human, democratic control of society, that is, by socialism.
It is a militant socialist tradition that we need to revive.