The issue of secularism was discussed at the RCN weekend away in Fife on 22nd February. Allan Armstrong introduced the session using the presentation he had made to Edinburgh RIC. The following discussion extended beyond the scope of the introductory talk, and brought up issues which Bob Goupillot had written about when the RCN was a platform in the SSP. Below, is an updated version of this, first published in Emancipation & Liberation, no 14, Spring 2007.


A Marxist understanding of religion

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

Marx understood the religious impulse to be a human response to a world that is sometimes scary, terrifying and out of our control. Thus the religions of hunter-gatherer people focus on asserting control over their prey animals, the religious festivals of farming peoples focus on marking the passing seasons and placating the gods and goddesses of the earth and sky. Religion is a human, spiritual response to an uncertain world.

Under capitalism, Marx argued, religious faith and religion in general are a result of and a response to, capitalist oppression and exploitation. Thus the religious impulse today is a way of responding to the uncertainty of a world based on impersonal market relations rather than direct human relationships. A world in which we are not expected to love our neighbour or be our brother’s (or sister’s) keeper but are encouraged to relate to others, as competitors for limited resources, or at best, fellow consumers. In the modern world religion is a product of alienation-our atomisation and isolation from each other and ourselves.

Thus religion began as a product of uncertainty and a response to, rather than a direct cause of, oppression. However, when religious hierarchies develop, making use of people’s desire to overcome oppression and alienation, they become a direct cause of oppression. This may be further accentuated when they become an arm of or form an alliance with the state.

This explains the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Arabic and Asian world. An important factor here was the failure of socialist and revolutionary nationalist movements e.g. Nasser in Egypt, Gaddafi in Libya, to defeat encroaching capitalism in the form of western imperialism. In the absence of an effective socialist movement Radical Islam provides a channel for the rage of the oppressed. Hamas and Hizbollah offer solace in the next world whilst being vehicles to deal with issues in this one e.g. the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

(As an aside I would argue that the historical Jesus was part of the Jewish resistance to Roman occupation and an early anti-imperialist)

A progressive socialist approach to religion – secularism.

Marx criticised religion but he was equally scathing about liberals or anarchists who made the criticism of religion a point of honour and insisted on everybody being atheists.

Such thinkers would often argue against supporting campaigns in support of religious tolerance and against religious oppression (in our time, Islamophobia, in Marx ‘s time, anti-Judeophobia or anti-Judaism) on the grounds that this was tolerating or even supporting religion. This misses the point that the right to freely express one’s spiritual or philosophical beliefs is a hard won, democratic right, that should be ‘religiously’ defended by all progressive people, socialists in particular.

Marx argued that religious beliefs will erode to the degree that the material conditions that promote them erode, that is the exploitation and oppression of capitalism. Thus rather than focussing on a fight against religion we should be uniting with all those, believer and non-believer, who genuinely oppose capitalism.

Secularism – a definition

The attitude that religion should have no place in civil affairs.

Collins English Dictionary

Secularism denotes the separation of religion from the state and abolishing discrimination between religions. That is a person’s spiritual or philosophical beliefs are their own affair and should be free from outside pressure or interference. People should be free to practise their religion, agnosticism or atheism as they see fit (provided it does not harm others). It expresses the equality of believers and non-believers.

Thus it is possible, for example, to be a secular, Christian, Moslem or Jew, and also to be a socialist.

A secular state means no public funds would be given to any religious schools nor would any specific religion be preferentially taught although there might be the study of religions as a branch of philosophy.

The religious instruction of children into one faith is indoctrination as they are being deprived of choice – some Baptists kind of believe this and they only baptise adults.

State has no place in personal spiritual development. Opposition to state religion

There are virtually no truly secular states. Interestingly, the writers of the US constitution firmly rejected any idea of a state religion and the final document omits any reference to god. The US state officially derives its authority from the people not God whatever George Bush and other American Christian fundamentalists may say

Misguided socialist approaches to religion

Since Marx’s time socialists have wrestled with the issue of how to relate to religion and religious believers. This history has produced a number of misguided approaches to this important question:

  1. State atheism, crackdowns on religions. This happened in Enver Hoxha’s ‘socialist’ Albania. It also happened in the Soviet Union under Stalin. He later ensured that the Russian Orthodox Church became an arm of the state.
  2. Separation of church and state but “secularism” used as stick to beat religious minorities e.g. the banning of the Muslim hijab in France was supported by some sections of left as a defence of ‘secularism’. The correct approach was to support the right of Muslim women to freedom of choice over what they wear (or don’t wear) in opposition to the capitalist state and the religious authorities.
  3. Sections of the left oppose a Secularist position. Arguments against the promotion of secularism usually take the following forms:
    1. Given that some religions have their own schools funded by the state e.g. Catholicism it is discriminatory or even racist to refuse funding to other religions e.g. Islam.
    2. State schools are in practice Protestant schools and parents who subscribe to other religions are perfectly entitled to support for schools that are based on their religion.
    3. A distorted anti-imperialism/cultural relativism – i.e. we mustn’t judge other cultures. Some of those who attack secularism defend “Islam” to try and be seen as defending “Muslims”.

However Lenin argued that all societies have ‘two cultures’ a democratic progressive culture and a repressive, backward culture and socialists must distinguish between the two. Therefore defend Muslims from state oppression and Islamophobia but don’t sweep disagreements under carpet.

What is often proposed instead is a variety of multi-culturalism or religious equality whereby every religion has the right to state support for its own ‘faith’ school. Note what is not proposed is the equality of believers and non-believers i.e. secularism.

Multiculturalism is a means whereby the capitalist state divides the working class and manages social conflict. In place of class struggle, religious, cultural, or ethnic groups are supposed to compete with each other for the state’s favours.

iv) Some socialists inside and outside Iraq and Iran see Islamic regimes or even Islam itself as the main or as great an enemy as the UK/USA imperialism. This is a mistake

Socialism and secularism in Scotland/UK today – what should we campaign for?

Separation of church and state

No state support for ‘faith’ schools

No religious teaching in schools but the study of religions

The abolition of the UK’s blasphemy laws. All belief systems should be open to criticism. That doesn’t mean that all criticism is useful e.g. the Danish anti-Islamic cartoons which were merely insulting. The Blair government is seeking to extend the blasphemy laws from Christianity to cover other religions. This has been supported by the likes of George Galloway, the SWP and Respect in England on the grounds that it would give some legal protection against Islamophobia.

Socialists should oppose all attempts to divide the working class on the basis of religion. Class unity in this world is more important than agreement about the nature of the next world.

Socialists consistently demand the earthly equality of believers and non-believers. We campaign for a democratic, secular, republic.

1st March 2014

(also see Secularism: Time To Seperate Church And State)