Maria Exall’s article on religion and secularism in Solidarity 3/76 reflects a broader debate on the left following the growth of fundamentalisms and issues such as faith schools. Maria essentially puts forward an indirect defence of religion against secularism and atheism, presenting it in terms Marx’s ideas on the social roots of religion.
Maria rightly emphasises Marx’s insistence that the social roots of religion lie in the alienation of humans from their existing conditions of life. She however counterposes this to atheism as if Marx was rejecting religion and atheism on an equal footing. She writes: “Living without God is clearly presumed by Marx as inevitable under socialism. This living without God however should not be confused with atheism as such. Atheism is the active denial of theism… Both theism and atheism are superseded by socialism.”
It is true that Marx in his early years sometimes mentioned atheism negatively and that he only thought religion would be overcome when its material base was removed. His concerns were essentially not with showing the non-existence of god but with social liberation. However it is also clear that Marx saw an anti-religious attitude as part of his world view.
In the 1840s Feuerbach had developed the view that religion should be seen as a creation and projection of human needs and passions. Marx’s critique of Feuerbach was not that he was an atheist but that, by not tying his atheism to communism, it was inadequate, inconsistent and rested on an abstractly humanist foundation:
“Feuerbach starts off from the fact of religious self-estrangement, of the duplication of the world into a religious, imaginary world, and a secular one. His work consists in resolving the religious world into its secular basis. He overlooks the fact that after completing this work, the chief thing still remains to be done. For the fact that the secular basis lifts off from itself and establishes itself in the clouds as an independent realm can only be explained by the inner strife and intrinsic contradictoriness of this secular basis. The latter must itself be understood in its contradiction and then, by the removal of the contradiction, revolutionised. Thus, for instance, once the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must itself be annihilated theoretically and practically.”
Marx’s atheism is important because Maria implies that we should maintain at best a neutrality towards religion as such while focussing on removing the roots of and need for religion. Rather than an antagonistic attitude, we should support the progressives in the battle between progressive and reactionary religion.
However starting from the position that religion is a creation of humanity, I don’t accept that the suffering and non-transparency of class society is the only basis for religion. Looking at religion historically we see that mystical explanations arise where phenomena occur that appear beyond human explanation and control, though this is modified by the development of human knowledge. In distinction to Maria, I do therefore see a use for rationalism. Maria also seems to neglect the role of religion as a form of social regulation and control.
Maria discusses the origins of socialist ideas stating, for example, that ideas of “egalitarianism and liberation from injustice have their roots in religious ideas.” How should this be understood? Does socialism develop from religious ideas? If so, why? Or, on the other hand, is egalitarianism to be found in the Bible (alongside many less pleasant things) because it is an expression of our human essence, our sharing of a common humanity, in religious terms — the secular basis lifting itself to the clouds?
It is of course true that for long periods of history revolutionary and socialist ideas have been expressed in religious terms, for example in the Peasants’ Revolt or the English Civil War. This is not surprising given the overall dominance of religion within these societies. It is precisely the gains from what Maria calls bourgeois rationalism — the Enlightenment, the development of modern capitalism and the parallel growth in our knowledge, particularly of nature — that mean that this is no longer generally the case. And a good thing too! It is from these roots that secularism emerges.
Maria’s claim that secularism has a symbiotic relationship with fundamentalism seems to be becoming fashionable amongst middle of the road religious people, concerned to dissociate their religion from fundamentalism. Mark Tully, the BBC’s long time India correspondent and a Christian, blames the secular nature of the Indian state and what he sees as its failure for the growth of Hindu fundamentalism and the BJP, claiming that it was bound to fail because it did not recognise the essential religiosity of most Indians. Maria attributes the failure of secularism and the rise of fundamentalism to the development of globalisation and a sense of rootlessness.
I can accept that fundamentalism is a complex response from people alienated from modern capitalism and, in some cases, by the failure of certain strategies for the development of their societies, particularly Stalinism and Third World nationalism. I also agree that a formal constitutional secularism does not necessarily mean a decline in religion.
But what is the alternative to secularism? How could a country like India, with huge religious — and irreligious — minorities, be governed democratically without it? Shouldn’t we defend the USA’s formal secularism against the encroachment of Christian fundamentalism? Shouldn’t we be in favour of the disestablishment of the Church of England and opposed to faith schools? Olivier Delbeke in his letter in Solidarity 3/78 spells out that secularism is fundamentally the only democratic basis for dealing with these issues — and adds that there will never be a perfect secular state under capitalism, just as there will never be a perfect democracy.
For Maria, the alternative to secularism is unclear. She implies that it is only socialism that will resolve the issues that lead people to religion and that in the mean time all else will be counterproductive. She draws a strange distinction between the “abstraction” of atheism and “real life” and opposes the secularist principle that religion should be a private matter — though the more that specifically religious concerns become a public, political matter the more likely they are to come into conflict with the concerns of Marxists and democrats.
Should we work alongside religious people in campaigns? Yes, of course. Should we be sensitive to their religious views? That depends on the issue. We should not defer to religious ideas any more than others, but should explain our views patiently. It will prove impossible to avoid clashes in many cases — think of the Salman Rushdie affair or faith schools or religious homophobia or the veil or… We should not remain silent or qualify our own views — shouldn’t irreligious views get the same dis/respect as religious ones? — but seek to convince people sympathetically while working with them where possible on a range of issues.
I hope this debate will continue as it has so far only scratched the surface. There are many more points to be discussed. In the mean time, I am genuinely curious as to what Maria means by “materialist spirituality”.