The title of this article is an extremely well-known extract from a criticism of religion by Karl Marx. On the basis of much of the left confusion and error with regard to a contemporary problem of considerable magnitude, I think this criticism is insufficiently considered. I am referring to the problem of the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. The widespread and justified horror with which the brutal targeting and killing of those who do not conform to the ideology of any of the militant Islamic sects, has led to a serious questioning of the fundamental principles of Islam. This has also led in some places to an increasing blanket suspicion of all Muslims on the supposed basis of not knowing which among them will be the next to commit an atrocity or assist in perpetrating one. The stiffling of criticism and the past demonstrations by Muslims who were sufficiently offended by criticism of Islam to burn books, flags, effigies and issue fatwas has added to this conclusion if not the suspicion. So to has the efforts of many Muslims to infiltrate schools and ensure a curriculum dominated by Islamic religious ideology.
The right-wing racists in Europe and elsewhere have jumped upon these facts and in many places directed their hatred and violence against any Muslim they happen to come across or choose to target. As a further consequence of this ‘reaction’ some on the left in a dualistic knee-jerk response to this situation have chosen to defend Islam and coined the term Islamophobia to label all criticism. They are mistaken if they think this is a solution. The term is used to lump all those who criticise Islam intellectually or from a secular or humanist position into one homogenous group along with the racists. This will not do. The contradictions within this latest phase of the capitalist mode of production deserve to be understood on a much more sophisticated level than such crass reductionism allows.
Defending Islam is not actually defending Muslims human rights because Islam in numerous ways oppresses and exploits those of the Muslim Faith. As with believers in Christianity and Judaism, many Muslims are the victims of their religious belief system as well as of western racism. In this case also, not only are their thought patterns interfered with from childhood in order to indoctrinate them into accepting Islamic ideology, but their very bodies are operated upon in the most grotesquely inhumane ways. It is a religious crime to leave Islam, homosexuality is viewed as a crime and atheism is an offence. Women and children in particular are the most oppressed. Female genetal mutilation, (FGM), child marriages with damaging births, honour killings and facial mutilation whether sanctioned by the Qur’an, Sunna, or not are common occurrences within Islamic communities. And not just those under the jurisdiction of ISIL or similar sects.
Furthermore I suggest that for the left to defend Islam is a betrayal of all those who went before us, socialists, communists, humanists and secularists who struggled and suffered to free people from the tyranny of organised religion and the stultifying intellectual hold it had over ordinary people, particularly the working class. It is also a betrayal of the revolutionary traditions associated with the struggle against the capitalist mode of production. Marx, perhaps more than anyone, contributed intellectually to the working class struggle against capital and he had a good deal to say about religion. So it is at this point I think it worth considering more fully his thoughts on this issue along with the role of anti-capitalists and revolutionary-humanists with regard to it.
Marx on religion.
From very early on Marx confronted the issue of the inversion of reality which permeates religion and makes his humanist position clear; man makes religion; religion does not make man. Religion from this humanist point of view is entirely a man-made ideological construction. It represents an inverted consciousness precisely because the economic and social world of human communities has been inverted. Religious ideology serves the purpose of being a consolation and justification for the existing state of affairs because that state of affairs is in conflict with the essence of humanity. In view of this Marx suggests that;
“The criticism. of religion is the premise of all criticism….Religion is indeed man’s self-consciousness and self-awareness so long as he has not found himself or has lost himself again…..The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly a struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of men, is a demand for their real happiness….The criticism of religion is, therefore, the embryonic criticism of this vale of tears of which religion is the halo.” (Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’ s Philosophy of Right.)
Hence his famous phrase that religion is “the opium of the people” and its compliment; ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature’. Some people need or become reliant upon religion for the same reason that some people need or become reliant upon drugs. It allows them a temporary escape from the unpleasant realities of the existing world into another paradigm – either an imaginary future or drug induced present. Of course religious ideology of the Abrahamic variety also serves an elite purpose. It simultaneously justifies the existence of a hierarchical form of society and replicates that hierarchy within its own institutions, a state of affairs which is conveniently attributed to the wishes of an imaginary male super-being. Of course the continued existence of divided, exploitive societies, of which capitalism is one, will continue to generate the need for such conciliatory and justifying ideologies.
However that does not mean anti-capitalists and revolutionary-humanists refrain from rigorously criticising religion on the basis that it simply exists, may offend some ardent believers, or could lose them some votes in an election. Such opportunist accommodation to hurt feeling or election results is entirely self-serving and ignores the fact some of those expressing hurt feelings may well be advocating real physical hurt or turning a blind eye when it happens within their communities. On the contrary the statement for a rigorous criticism of everything applies here also. In a series of comments upon the Gotha programme Marx also made the following comment regarding the inclusion of a reference to religious freedom of conscience.
“..the workers party ought at any rate in this connection to have expressed its awareness of the fact that…for its part it endeavours rather to liberate the conscience from the witchery of religion.” (Critique of the Gotha Programme.)
Religion is a serious problem.
For humanity, religion is a serious social problem. That is obvious from direct experience. Within each religion, particularly the patriarchal Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, oppressive male practices are given a supposedly supernatural authorisation. That is bad enough. But in addition each of these religions asserts that it is the only true religion and their respective scriptural texts authorise killing in the name of their God. These religions were the human designed products of an ancient period of tribal social organisation when the world was not fully linked economically. This is no longer the case. Capitalism has created a world market and whilst it has done so to extremes and with calculated violence, any attempt to go beyond capital must have a fully humanist perspective in which all peoples are treated without prejudice. International human rights will need to be really put into practice not left as rhetorical aspirations on some tablet or scroll. For this to occur religion will have to be given a back seat and not be given the centre stage in human affairs.
Those adopting such a revolutionary and humanist position need to criticise all religions whilst defending all individuals against racist, sexist or other forms of prejudice and violence. Solidarity is with regard to their human rights not solidarity with any prejudiced views they may hold. It is certainly not our task to defend any ideology based upon ancient myths (for which there is scant or zero evidence) nor to encourage believers to become comfortable with accepting patriarchal practices of domination, discrimination and oppression. On the contrary the revolutionary-humanist criticism of religion in its content and form aims to expose all those conditions in which humanity is debased, exploited, oppressed by the economic system of capital and the ideas it’s elites use to reconcile and justify that system. Revolutionary-humanist criticism points ahead to a future for humanity beyond capital by denouncing the system and exposing all ideas and illusions which stand in the way of such progress. Religion along with nationalist ideologies are precisely those illusory abstractions which do so.
[See also ‘Totalitarianism; ‘Religious and Political’. And; ‘Religion – is – Politics’]
Roy Ratcliffe (November 2015)