the state and atheism

Submitted by Anon on 2 March, 2006 - 8:57

Mark Sandell’s letter (Solidarity 3/87) attacking my article on secularism in France did make a sustained effort at picking holes in my argument, but did little to justify his own position.

While I raised doubts over the possibility of engaging religious workers if we wholeheartedly support the bourgeois state’s effort to impose irreligion on them, Mark simply accuses me of “joining the motley crew of cultural relativists, numbskull ‘anti-imperialists’ and assorted religious bigots in opposing the ban on the veil”. He nowhere answers my charge that a crude ban on religious symbols will make Muslims feel oppressed by “secularism” rather than more enlightened.

In any case, Marxists do not define their politics just by looking at who else does or doesn’t hold the same position as them. The fact that Muslim reactionaries oppose the ban is not necessarily a reason to support it, any more than the fact that Jacques Chirac supports the ban is necessarily a reason to oppose it.

A line which both condemns religion and the enforced wearing of the veil, and says that the bourgeois state has no right to control the boundaries of freedom of expression, is not similar to the position of SWP cultural relativists. While the SWP/Respect project arranges its doctrine around the promulgations of the Muslim Association of Britain etc, real Marxists seek to show religious believers the value in the workers’, women’s and gay rights which their spokespeople oppose.

Mark says I am critical of the PS/UMP’s attempt to impose bourgeois atheism on religious believers. He says that we positively advocate “bourgeois atheist” values, through supporting Einstein’s, Darwin’s and Copernicus’ theories, which undermine religious dogma.

True enough. And I my original article, I clearly used the phrase “bourgeois atheism” to refer to the aim of the Parti Socialiste to “reassert the values of the Republic”, i.e. those of the ruling class, as against those of Islam. This aim is rather less noble than that of defending the discoveries of science — yet through selective quoting out of context, Mark has been able to highlight my apparent hostility to science. If, as my article did not suggest, any Marxists were to refuse to incorporate into their materialist understanding the findings of Darwin for the sake of appeasing Muslims, I would of course be against them.

Yes the bourgeoisie has had a hugely progressive historic role in advancing culture, science and philosophy. But this is no reason to support everything it does against more reactionary ideologies — we have to also look at the consequences of and reaction to any piece of legislation, rather than making the idealist argument that one belief system is better than another.

For example a ban on all religious practice would theoretically advance the “bourgeois struggle against religious rubbish” and “stop the mosque hoisting the veil over [girls] and stopping them learning about sex or doing sport”. Yet to advocate that the state do this would mean ignoring the fact that religious people, including girls who are in fact oppressed by the Islamic faith, would feel repressed and rebel against it. Does Mark contend that all Muslim girls are truly conscious of their oppression? Surely many blindly accept Qu’ranic doctrine. Furthermore, such moves give the state powers of ideological control abhorrent to socialists.

Mark’s claim that “Britain is the least religious country in the world” also contradicts his overriding thesis that the bourgeois state is necessary to combating religion. The death of religion in our country — comrades may note that it is not a secular state — is, as Mark says, the result of “centuries of struggle and a tradition of ideas”, not any attempt by the state to stamp out religion in favour of its own values. Working-class political and economic aims were central to the growth of anti-clericalism and the decline of Catholicism in 19th century Europe, while bourgeois states such as the French Third Republic clung to the Church hierarchy as the defender of class privilege.

The question of the ban on the veil and religious symbols did not simply force Marxists to pick between the morals of the French bourgeoisie and those of the Qu’ran. The socialist approach had to be to stop the French state controlling the parameters of free expression, whilst seeking to engage the faithful in working-class politics so as to free them of the ideology of oppression that is religious dogma.

David Broder

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