After a recent conversation with friends regarding the future of religion in a post-revolutionary setting, I wanted to write this article to address some of the issues I have, even as an atheist, with the abolitionist narrative of religion and its mindset which still remains as colonialist as it did a century ago, with modern anti-theists merely replicating Christian civilising missionaries.
I don’t often like to speculate on the utopian fantasies of post-revolution but there are moments within radical conversations that one needs to at least construct a basic framework in order to explore further their own ideas.
My friend doesn’t see religion as compatible with anarchism. They say that the hierarchy of God over man is contradictory. They say that religion is oppressive. They say that it should be abolished, that their revolutionary future can have no space for religion or the religious. They quote Marx’s critique of religion as an ‘opiate of the masses’ and I have to stop them there for a moment because that line is so intolerably misquoted. The full quote, we must always remember, is this:
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it 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 illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.
If we deconstruct this then what we are faced with is a critique of the State’s use of religion to oppress us. The historical and material conditions under which we live, maintained by the state, lead us to continue to believe in an afterlife that will provide us with an ‘illusory happiness’ which allows us to continue on with our day to day work.
However, we underestimate the cultural significance of religion and moreso its role in the development of key principles that are inherently anti-capitalist and anti-state. The likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens who have written extensively in the past on the illnesses of Islam and how as a religion it seeks to poison our society comes from a colonialist mindset that aims to otherise a seventh of the world’s population, and feeds into an imperialist narrative that pushes for us to spread democracy to countries of heathens who before we arrived seemed to be doing just fine.
The question isn’t ‘Is religion oppressive?’ which in particular contexts it fundamentally can be, the question really is ‘why is religion oppressive?’ Far too often we critique religion without looking at it intertwining with the state and how it is used by the colonial and neo-colonial state. We merely have to look at the treatment of Jewish people in Europe throughout history and LGBTQ people globally and the manipulation of religion to see this in action. We are not looking at the will of God, merely the will of man to exploit God as a resource. Most people will look at Britain and perceive it to be a nation where Church and State are separate, but I’m talking of a connection more focused on international relations.
As a nation we spend our lives in fear of terror attacks from radical Islamists who we refuse to accept that we created, and continue to bomb poor Muslim countries dismissing the bodies of children as collateral. But other countries that practice the laws of Sharia that we decry as savage, such as Saudi Arabia, are perfectly fine for us to sell weapons to and buy oil from.
At the same time, religion is a source of overwhelming love and community. It brings people together under one common aim and extends it outreaching arms to those not within its community. It is practice as old as our sentience and there is a cultural heritage to it which ensures its continual survival, and this is where, I personally believe, the issues arise in its practice.
There is common misconception that modern religion relies on the devotion to an infallible text. Yet, these texts were never written. That’s not how information was spread in the age of their origins. These texts were spread through the oral tradition where they would be memorised and spread from town to town in banquet halls and alehouses. They were subject to human corruption just as much as the organisations put in place to enforce them were, and are today. The prophets, like Caedmon (a simple and talentless shepherd visited upon by an angel in a dream and later was able to compose devotion to God) were those able to commit to memory a message worth spreading.
The Romans manipulated Christianity to reign in the pagans of Old England by creating a warrior out of Jesus and using the allegory of the armour of God to appeal to the Warrior Code. There’s even a compelling argument by Joseph Atwill that the Romans invented Christianity as a means of pacifying the poor and quashing Jewish uprisings against their oppressors.
So, what place would religion have in a post-revolutionary society? Firstly, I believe that religion must be decolonised, returned to its origins and responded to with its cultural and historical origins unpolluted by imperialism and colonialism. Too often the discussions are led by old white men with too much of a privileged standing in the subjugation of more religious cultures. The discussions on the future of religion within revolution need to be led by those who want to see their culture applied and adapted around a state and capitalist-free society. Secondly, an acceptance of historical conditions and the materialism of religion as it is today needs to be a point of focus. Rewriting the narrative created by the fallibility of human hands is possible but only with the acceptance that religion does not need to be absolute. It already is used in a relative manner on both ends of the spectrum of religiosity and the sooner this is accepted the more revolutionary religion can become.