"Must The Priest Believe?" — in God!
— would, I thought, as my eye first
flicked over the programme page, be a satire
or a skit.
But no, it was a serious edition of Joan
Bakewell's "Heart of the Matter", provoked by the
case of a Church of England priest, Anthony
Freeman, unfrocked for publishing a book
explaining why he no longer believes in God.
He doesn't want to be sacked either — he
thinks he should continue as a priest! The
exclamation mark embodies my own incredulity
— but possibly my ideas about these things are
old-fashioned. There are quite a number of such
Church of England priests, it seems, in regular
communion with each other, if not with the God
they no longer believe in.
Anthony Freeman explained himself clearly.
When he now talks of "God", he said, the word
did still have meaning for him but not a super-
natural one. God is a word representing some-
thing human like "Duty" and "Conscience", not
the traditional God conceived as a divine person
who intervenes in the affairs of humankind.
Humanity made God; God did not make
humanity, as Marxists have always said!
When priests of the Church of England start to
say it, organised religion is in a bad way.
150 years ago, for almost everyone, and 100. or
even 50, years ago, for most people, religion
intruded everywhere, hand-in-hand with the
state, to tell you what you could and could not
believe, what you could and could not do. Now
look at it! We see it melting and dissolving
before our eyes.
When, a hundred years ago, the philosopher
Friedric Nietzsche summarised his age's growing
post-Darwin awareness of the real Descent of
Man, with the bold statement: "God is dead!", it
was immensely shocking, startling, terrifying.
Today, priests of the Church of England can say
it casually on TV before millions, and with no
visible sense of shock or terror!
We have moved so far that, I suppose, many
people today have to make a special effort before
they can understand the terror and shock of such
an idea — or the fervent sense of elation and
liberation with which a minority received the
doctrine that God was dead.
It may be true, as someone said, that the
British labour movement "owed more to
Methodism than to Marxism", but the British
labour movement also owes a great deal to the
secularists. They too helped shape it. A hundred
years ago one and the same man — Edward
Aveling. Eleanor Marx's partner — could produce
"The Student's Marx" and "The Student's Darwin"
for the same working-class audience, and believed
that he served the same cause with both primers.
But, oh, bow disappointed those socialist secularists
would be, those industrious spreaders of science,
enlightenment, humanism and atheism inside the
early working-class movement, if they could see
what is replacing the once oppressively powerful
and confident structures of official religion that
now fall apart before our eyes!
Not science and enlightenment, or high
mindedness and the proud ethics of human solidarity,
but, among vast masses of people, regression
from the worked-out internal coherence of the
old structured religions to the Tarot card,
astrology, and Mrs Thatcher's ethics of the
From the Virgin Mary to Mystic Meg is not
progress! Except, perhaps, in so far as no-one
feels obliged to coerce you into believing in
Marx's famous summary of what religion is
ends by explaining why we fight religion.
"Man makes religion, religion does not
make man. In other words, religion is the self
consciousness and self-feeling of man who has
either not yet found himself or has already lost
"Religion is the sigh of the oppressed
creature, the heart of a heartless world, just
as if is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is
the opium of the people.
"The abolition of religion as the illusory
happiness of the people is required for their
real happiness. The demand to give up the
illusions about its condition is the demand to
give up a condition which needs illusions...
"Criticism has plucked the imaginary
flowers from the chain not so that man will wear
the chain without any fantasy or consolation
but so that he will shake off the chain and cull
the thing flower. The criticism of religion dis-
illusions man to make him think and act and
shape his reality like a man who has been
disillusioned and has come to reason, so that he
will revolve round himself and therefore round
his true sun..."
We are shedding the old religion but, so far,
failing to replace it with a higher, rational,
human outlook. People have become
disillusioned in organised religion, but not freed
from superstitious illusion, nor thereby spurred
to do something about their condition. Instead,
we live in the ruins, the debris, and the weeds and
the mental and moral bacteria of decaying old
Why? People in our society desperately need
consolation, and need the illusion of a magical
helper, whether Mystic Meg, the Virgin Mary,
or — for earache in the west of Ireland — the
blood, soaked in a piece of red gauze, of a "St
Martin's cock" whose throat was cut on St Mar-
Lenin tried to explain the survival of religion
amid the enlightenment of his time by the effects
of the social insecurities that are inseparable
from capitalism — which reproduce in modern
life the insecurities imposed by nature in earlier
That is true, but not fundamental. Human
beings live for a short time, a life without
intrinsic meaning. We can at best give meaning
to our individual lives by struggling for the progress
and betterment of the species. The individual is and
will always be a mere leaf on the biological tree,
shaking in the wind, soon gone. There has never
yet been a "happy ending" to the story of any
individual human being, and there never will be!
From those terrible brute underlying facts of
human existence comes the need for denial, for
wish-fulfillment, for consolation — all the things
that combine with the insecurities of daily life
and with fantasies about a benign God-parent
(and his malign devilish relatives!) up above
somewhere, to make and remake religions.
The alternative is stark, terrible, and difficult
to sustain. It is:
"To face reality with seeing eyes
To fix with lucid gaze advancing night
And dare to know where it is you are, and what...
To build within intrinsically blind
Meaningless lives, an expanding human meaning
That extends our patch of light, although you know
That there is not, nor can there be, ever,
More than a short staring back with life-lighted eyes
Into inexorable lowering endless night."
God, or Mystic Meg, is easier than that harsh
and comfortless truth. In a society governed by a
profound and pervasive sense of human solidarity,
it might seem less terrible, but capitalist society
isolates the individual human being in a way
that magnifies the underlying terror and horror
on which we must construct our lives. It also, as
Lenin said, creates an environment of needless
insecurity and uncertainty.
Thus, though science tends to eliminate religion,
nevertheless religion seems only to regress
and diminish — back to primitive superstitions.
It mutates. It does not disappear. The need is
still too great.
We have failed lo outgrow religion because we
have so far failed to get further than the
prehistory of humankind. Not even atheist C of E
priests will make religion disappear! First,
humanity must raise itself out of its still half-savage
prehistory. Then the fantasies, hysterias, and
imaginary consolations of religion will drain
away — or most of them will, for most people,
most of the time. A sense of truth and a
self respecting fidelity to truth will replace fond
Humankind will begin to be able to stand
upright, up off our knees, groping for full self-
possession at last.
Socialist Organiser 23 September. 993