Religion: The Good, the bad, and the ugly
Friday February 22, 2008 09:29 by James O'Brien - Worker Solidarity
An anarchist view
An anarchist dismisses religious belief as a means of understanding the world that has been "superceded by science", sparking a lively debate. Is this argument simply showing disrespect to believers, talking down to the proles, or is it really the case that religion is "a dangerous drug" which means "handing over your brain to a priest, rabbi, or imam"? Read the arguments and make your own mind up.
Anarchism has traditionally been hostile to all religions because by their very nature they tend to be authoritarian. A supernatural creator who sets the rules is naturally considered to be the ultimate source of authority. And its authority means humanity’s obedience. If there is a god, it would, in the words of Bakunin, be necessary to abolish him. But a creator doesn’t exist, so we are left with the more mundane task of spreading the good news that values aren’t handed down from on high, but emerge from human society.
Socialists of all stripes are materialists. This doesn’t mean we’re greedy for money or crazy for the latest fashions. It just means that we think that the world started off quite simple, i.e. matter, and gradually evolved into more complex forms, such as animals. We see the world from the bottom up and try to understand the causes of events in natural terms, e.g. disease isn’t a form of possession by demons but often a virus or bacterial infection. Anti-social crimes aren’t simply committed by evil people; they’re partially the result of social pressures such poverty and lack of opportunities.
Religion looks at the world from the opposite point of view. Everything is top down. First you’ve got an unimaginably smart creator who was bored enough to make humans fairly clever and then down the long chain from animals to bacteria. The top-down view is especially illustrated in the religious view of the superiority of the immortal soul over the physical body.
When humanity was first coming up with answers to tricky questions like “why does it rain; what happens when we die? what causes events?”, they came up with quite a good answer. Since, in our everyday experience, minds are responsible for causing events and designing complex objects such as tools, a very great mind must be the ultimate cause of everything. This resort to an ultimate designer is especially attractive when trying to understand important parts of people’s lives, such as the weather, death etc. We still see the remnants of that today amongst people who turn to religion in order to cope with difficult circumstances.
Attributing all of creation to a super-mind was a good answer and a valuable one too. It got humanity on the scientific path of seeking proper causes for events. That the answer happened to be completely wrong doesn’t invalidate its historic importance.
Nowadays, religion has been superseded by science as a means of understanding the world. Science explains successfully what religion can’t. What science can’t explain, it is working on. Unfortunately, most, if not all, of the world’s religions have failed to keep up. They still keep to their doctrines of creation and resurrection, of prophecy and visions, of salvation and doom. There are naturalistic reasons for this too; the desire to maintain an institution’s power and the influence of inertia amongst others.
Worse, religion’s retreat in the face of science has left it holding not only absurd dogmas, but extolling the only means of believing in them: faith. This is simply belief without evidence and it’s a dangerous drug because in effect it means handing over your brain to a priest, rabbi, or imam. That is, handing it to somebody who advocates the greatest absurdities. This can only have negative consequences, especially when it comes to social life.
By contrast, anarchism is a vision of self-activity. Letting other people do your thinking for you will come home to roost in the end, hence the libertarian opposition to the concept of power being in the hands of specific political parties.
Trusting the bishops and the mullahs to weigh up matters on our behalf will soon result in edicts justifying exploitation and the necessity of a leadership. The Catholic Church just last December felt the need to yet again decry the socialist vision for a free and equal society. The faithful are supposed to line up against their own interests. Naturally, they will only do this if they concede the right of the church to do their thinking for them.
Happily, this is less and less the case in Ireland. About 15% of the population are non-religious and many of the nominal Christians pay heed to the apostles of Christ in name only. The litany of child abuse scandals, idiotic teachings on contraception, and blatantly sexist treatment of women has combined with a better educated people and more developed country to reduce their influence.
Just as science has replaced religious explanations, so too have ethical ideologies such as socialism replaced superstitious teachings as the cutting edge of social justice. After all, if something is the right thing to do, it remains the right thing to do, irrespective of what Jesus or Mohammad think. If by some tiny chance a creator does exist and has a direct line to the religious people in this world, our only problem would be how to get rid of it. As the cruel and bloody history of religion testifies, the gods are probably a lot less ethically inclined than the rest of us.
No, if we want a free and just society, there’s no point in putting your faith in superstition. That’s got to come from human endeavour, and depressing as the world may seem with daily stories about war in Iraq and hunger in Dafur, in many cases things have gotten better.
In Europe alone in the last two hundred years, we’ve seen massive changes in the winning of women’s and workers’ rights, and on the other side, the end of the divine right of a thieving aristocratic elite to rule. The rise in living standards is connected to the questioning by working people of the eternal religious platitudes. It is not simply a one-way process. Just as material conditions influence the degree of religious belief, so religious belief influences the kind of world we live in.
The best hope for the world is that ordinary working people, acting in solidarity, will progress towards a rational and libertarian socialist society. Along the way we have to throw off the chains of superstition.
Mohammad frequently consulted with angels
Desmond Connell reckoned his guardian angel saved him from burglars