Priests Who Don't Believe in God? (1993)

Submitted by dalcassian on 29 August, 2014 - 1:25 Author: Sean Matgamna

"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 supernatural one. God is a word representing something 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. Marxists have been saying that for a very long time.

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 some people 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 believe 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 piranha pool.

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 astrology.

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 himself again.

"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 disillusions 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 religions.

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 when I was a child — the blood, soaked in a piece of red gauze, of a "St Martin's cock" whose throat was cut on St Martin's Day.

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 times.

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 delusion.

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