Throughout the world, political religion or religious politics is being revived. In the United States Christian fundamentalists want to end the traditional separation of church and state. These fundamentalists have mass support. In the Middle East and North Africa Muslim “fundamentalism” is also strong.
Often known as political Islam, this movement varies in nature from country to country. “Islamists” always aim to set up what they would term authentic “Islamic states”. They want society to be organised according to the principles of a dogmatic and sometimes cruel reading of Islam.
Britain is a largely non-religious country — only five or ten per cent of the population are actively religious, that is, regularly attend a church, a mosque a synagogue or a temple. But with the help of New Labour religious bodies are asserting their ambitions and extending their influence. We see this with the expansion of Christian and other religious schools. Roughly 40% of primary education in the UK is delivered by a Christian or other religious body.
Secularists are opposed to these developments.
That is because a secularist is someone who wants religion to be relegated to the private sphere and removed entirely from public life.
A secularist would like to see a world where religion played no part in education and no part in law making. Church leaders would not sit on government committees. There would be no Cabinet Office department, as there is today, looking into the representation of “faith” in public life. Religion would be a matter of private conscience, restricted to the home and the place of worship.
Secularists have different views about the extent to which religion and the expression of religious faith should be marginalised in public life. Should religious charities doing “good work” receive public money? Should girls and young women be allowed to wear the hijab in school?
In other countries — France and the US — the church and state are constitutionally separate. In France the separation is more real than it is in the US, where the dollar bill carries the words “In God We Trust”! When the US Congress, helped by the personal intervention of George Bush, tried to interfere in the life and death of Terri Schiavo it reminded us of how “religious” US political institutions are. Nonetheless the formal separation of church and state is an important gain.
On the face of it secularism is not hostile to religious belief as such — merely wishing that it stays a private matter. In fact, secularism is the only consistent basis on which religious freedom for all — in a society of diverse and no religious beliefs — can be secured.
However, hostility, that is principled and political objection, to the pretensions of organised religion — the authorities and institutions of religions — is always implied.
Opposition to organised religion is often socialistic: secularism has historically been the movement of the poor and the oppressed fighting the power of the priests and the church. And there is a historical link between secularism and the fight for female emancipation. All religions have seen women as lesser beings or often sought to control the “dangerous” sexuality of women. The struggle against religion-imposed “modesty” or “chastity” is common throughout history in Christian, Muslim, Jewish and other societies.
Secularists may be atheists or not. But Marxist socialists are usually atheists and do not believe in the existence of any god. An atheist wants to see the end to all religion because we believe it is a shackle on the minds and lives of human beings, holding us back from rational thinking.
Atheists have different views about the sociological or psychological roots of religious belief. The analysis of Marxist socialists focuses on its role in capitalist society. Lenin: “In modern capitalist countries the basis of religion is primarily social. The roots of modern religion are deeply embedded in the social oppression of the working masses, and in their apparently complete helplessness before the blind forces of capitalism, which every day and every hour cause a thousand times more horrible suffering and torture for ordinary working folk than are caused by exceptional events such as war, earthquakes. ‘Fear created the gods.’ Fear of the blind force of capital — blind because its action cannot be foreseen by the masses — a force which at every step in life threatens the worker and the small business man with ‘sudden,’ ‘unexpected,’ ‘accidental’ destruction and ruin, bringing in their train beggary, pauperism, prostitution, and deaths from starvation...” (See Lenin’s text on pages 15-16).
Because Marxists think religion is deeply rooted in society, we do not believe it can simply be abolished. We would not attempt to “take religion away” from anyone. A most extreme and destructive example of such an attempt was Pol Pot’s Year Zero atrocity, when not only was religion banned in Cambodia, but all artefacts of modern life. City dwellers were forced into the countryside. Millions of people lost their lives in that “experiment”.
We are for the freedom of religious belief and practice. We do however seek to “secularise” society. That should be a neutral process — eliminating religious influence and control from public life.
And we also propose and argue for alternative ways of looking at the world. Many people are inducted into religion by emotional pressure as children, long before they have the knowledge, experience or confidence to see and understand the world in different ways. The UK government backs religious schools and it has even given the green light to schools where “creationism” (the Adam and Eve story) is taught as factual truth, equivalent to scientific explanations (at the Vardy Academy in Middlesborough). New Labour believes in indoctrinating children. We do not. We think it is abusive.
The world needs more “freethinkers” — people who are committed to a rational and sceptical approach to religion (and also science, politics, social life). People who have a materialistic outlook — that is people who make decisions according to the evidence that is available.
Not having religion doesn’t mean that you don’t have “values” or “morals”, as the current government would have you believe. Basic human solidarity must be the first and guiding principle of all socialists. It will be of most secularists too.
The bloody histories of religions teach us that it is the dogmatists, the rigidly pious and the religious leaders who are often the most immoral — killing in the name of religion. Communal pogroms and attacks from the Indian subcontinent, to Northern Ireland and the Middle East show that bloody history continuing. It must stop.