Rod MacGregor looks at science, secularism and the role of religion

In his book about oil depletion, Half Gone, Jeremy Leggett, one-time oil company high flier and former chief scientist with Greenpeace, tells of a particularly bizarre conversation he had with a lobbyist from the Ford Motor Company at a conference on climate change.

The man from Ford tried (unsuccessfully) to convince Leggett that, far from being four and a half billion years old, the world was, in fact, only 10,000 years old. Not only did he sincerely believe this, he also accused Leggett of being a disciple of the anti-Christ, then further informing him that pouring ever increasing amounts of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere did not really matter, as Leggett and all his fellow followers of the anti-Christ would be vanquished in the battle of Armageddon by the forces of God, after which they would ascend to heaven.

One thing that this outlandish dialogue between Leggett and the man from Ford does demonstrate is the resilience of religious fundamentalism.

Although the power of religion over the masses in western advanced societies has been seriously diminished since its mediaeval high point it would be foolish to think that it is no longer a relevant and powerful force in today’s world. In the United States, any politician with desires for high office ignores the Religious Right at their peril.

As science advanced and factual observation and calculation challenged faith based religion, the churches themselves did not just meekly accept that the game was up with the dawning of the age of reason. In fact, they fought tooth and nail in the face of the advance of scientific discovery and theory.

One of the most famous battles took place between Galileo Galilei and the Catholic Church in the 17th century. This particular fight had its roots in the previous century, when the Polish astronomer Copernicus had theorised that the Earth and all the planets revolved around the sun, opposing the then orthodox view that the Earth was at the centre and everything revolved around it.


This view was taken up by Galileo, an Italian physicist, astronomer and mathematician, who, among other things, invented the astronomical telescope. His invention allowed him to see the appearance of the planet Venus going through phases, thus proving that it was orbiting the Sun and confirming Copernicus to be correct.

Scientifically this was what we would nowadays call a breakthrough. But personally for Galileo, in his own time, it was a discovery which would cost him dearly, as it brought him into conflict with the Catholic Church and the Inquisition in the 17th century.

An explanatory word about the inquisition. Originally established in 1233, it was a tribunal, the purpose of which was to suppress heresy, originally by excommunication. It operated in Italy, Spain, France and the Holy Roman Empire, and later extended its reach to the Americas. Following the Reformation, it was particularly active. Trials were held in secret, often under threat of torture, and punishments ranged from fines and flogging, through to imprisonment and death by burning.

In 1616 the Inquisition had heard from a committee of consultants that the Sun being the centre of the Universe and the Earth having an annual motion were absurd in philosophy, at least erroneous in theory, and formally a heresy. This was bad news for Galileo.

He was summoned before the Inquisition on several occasions, including one in 1633 when he was formally interrogated for eighteen days regarding his book Dialogue Concerning The Two Chief World Systems.

To cut a long story short Galileo’s clash with the Catholic Church and the Inquisition saw him endure house arrest, despite failing health, until his death in 1642. The Catholic Church did, however, eventually, and somewhat reluctantly and belatedly almost come round to his way of thinking when it finally conceded that he might, he might be right. This magnanimous partial acceptance took place in 1983!

Now, lest anyone thinks that this is an anti-Catholic rant, in the interests of balance it should be pointed out that the Protestants were actually on the ball regarding Copernican theory nearly eighty years before the Catholic Church let the Inquisition loose on Galileo.

Luther himself said of Copernicus that The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside down, and he considered the words how and why to be dangerous and infectious questions.

We can see from this that in the hundreds of years from Galileo and the Inquisition right up to today with neo-cons in America and, till recently, Blair in this country, religion is by no means an irrelevance.

What, then, should our attitude, as secular socialists, be towards religion?

Consenting adults

Personally, in my own ideal socialist world, I would treat religion like sex. That is, let those of a religious persuasion do what they like, but let them do it in the privacy of their own homes among consenting adults. If they want to have prayer meetings or whatever with fellow believers of whatever faith, fine. And if they behaved themselves and their priests/imams/rabbis, &c., were not too meddlesome, I would even let them out once a year at Christmas/Ramadan/whatever for a bit of public worship.

The link with church and state would have to go, though. I wouldn’t go for an outright ban on religion as it has proved itself a stubborn beast where its eradication has been attempted, and an outright ban would give it a power that benign tolerance and state indifference would not. So, the question arises, does religion have any radical role to play in today’s world?

One thing springs to mind. Quite often, where there is political repression, populations will gather round a religion to express dissent. There are numerous examples of this, most recently the Buddhist monks of Burma, who took to the streets in protest at their own government in the absence of a political opposition. Other examples could include the Catholic Church in El Salvador in the 1980’s, and even the Islamic fundamentalism which replaced the Shah in Iran in the 1970’s.

But as socialists we should be careful about siding with any religion just because it opposes things which we as socialists, too, may oppose. Many religions come with baggage that should be unacceptable to anyone on the left. Should we have supported the ayatollahs of Iran simply because they were opposed to the Shah, a despotic and particularly vile puppet of American imperialism? How could we square away giving unqualified support to Ayatollah Khomeni with Islam’s approach to women, gays or the death penalty?

Or in El Salvador, how could we have unquestioningly backed the Catholic Church, given its views on abortion, homosexuality or birth control. While we may detest the autocratic, undemocratic regimes that these religions opposed, we could at best offer only limited support to them, given the power structures that are at their core.

These are, indeed, classic examples of why we should be careful about siding with our enemies’ enemies. They are not necessarily our friends.

But I believe that there is at least one very good and important lesson that secular socialists can learn from religious fundamentalism, albeit what could, perhaps, be described as a negative one. It is this. We, too, as socialists, have our fundamental beliefs; we, too, have our tracts that our (hugely) godless faith holds sacred. But we must be prepared to add to those tracts, taking into account changing times and different circumstances.

Different people in different areas of the world may respond differently to situations that they find themselves in. What works in a relatively wealthy first world country may be quite different in character to what will energise and attract people to socialist values in a third world country or in a country which, once relatively wealthy, has fallen on hard times.

In this context I would like to point up two examples.

In his book Heroes John Pilger describes, in an article written in 1985, the struggles of the Eritrean people for independence from Ethiopia. Since 1961 the Eritreans had, while at war with Ethiopia and in isolation, despite appalling poverty, built a society which was, of stark necessity, self-reliant, but one which also placed essential value on literacy and humanity.

No young Eritrean was allowed to become a fighter in their armed struggle until they could read, write and understand what they might very well have to die for one day. And though in a permanent state of shortage, any prisoners taken were treated according to the Geneva Convention. The Eritreans’ belief was that the young Ethiopians they were fighting against were themselves victims of the same system which was trying to obliterate them.

In the years from 1961 to 1985 Eritrea’s enemies defied ideology. Both imperial and revolutionary Ethiopia had waged war on Eritrea, which had been a pawn in a superpower chess game, with America and the Soviet Union, with their client states, Israel and Cuba, weighing in for good measure.

Pilger points out that even their dogma, which he describes as a mish-mash of basic Marxism, had been reshaped by years of war and betrayal. A teacher who had studied in Britain explained it to him thus,

It may sound preposterous to you, but we have no left-wing and no right-wing. These are European concepts which have no application in Eritrea, or probably anywhere in Africa. How can we possibly use these stupid terms? We have been let down too often. We are ourselves: and we have no political debts.

For the record, Eritrea achieved independence from Ethiopia in May 1993.

The second example is that of Argentina. In December 2001, the Argentinian economy collapsed, throwing a quarter of the workforce out of work.

Movement of Recovered Companies poster
Movement of Recovered Companies poster

Movement of Recovered Companies

Out of this industrial holocaust something remarkable emerged, known as the Movement of Recovered Companies. It is still not huge, six years on it covers only 170 companies and 10,000 workers, but what these workers have achieved is quite astonishing.

There existed a legal framework whereby the workers could, through time, expropriate ownership of the companies. This they achieved by occupying the shut-down factories and bringing them back into production.

Put like that it sounds quite simple, but the Recovered Companies movement is a tale of occupation, eviction and re-occupation, most of the time with intimidation and violence from the former owners and police always lurking in the background.

By far the most common form of control is by setting up a co-operative, where decisions are made by assembly, with everyone having their say. In one factory, in the middle of the floor are forty school desks, so that workers who have to keep the machinery working, can have their say as they do so.

But the interesting thing is that the people who occupied these factories and brought them back to life did not start from a political viewpoint. Their sole aim in the beginning was to earn money to feed their families. Many, however, become politicised by their struggles.

The left, when they turned up to offer their support, were quite often viewed with something approaching suspicion and the workers themselves did not want to be co-opted on to anyone’s political agenda. Indeed, in one factory they were eventually asked if they would mind supporting them from outside the factory gates!

As one worker put it,

We formed the cooperative with the criteria of equal wages and making basic decisions by assembly; we are against the separation of manual and intellectual work; we want a rotation of positions and; above all, the ability to recall our elected leaders.

Some on the left feel that the co-operatives fit too comfortably into what is still a capitalist system, and call for nationalisation of the co-operatives. As one worker pointed out, however, while not theoretically opposed to nationalisation at some time in the future to do so currently would mean having a right-wing capitalist as their ultimate boss.

An interesting argument.

Though different in nature, what happened in Eritrea and Argentina (one a war, the other an economic catastrophe) had a common thread running through them and that thread’s name was necessity, as people rallied to a common cause and left the political theorists either stranded on the side-lines or chasing events as they happened.

We must keep our minds open to new ideas, to new variations on familiar themes. Not to do so will leave us with nothing but rigid dogma. If we do not embrace change which enhances our core beliefs, however unexpected its origin, then two millennia from now (though, hopefully the revolution will have occurred by then) we would find future socialists quoting from ancient texts and Marxist tracts from the 19th century.

They will preach to an audience which will regard them with every bit as much incredulity as Jeremy Leggett could ever muster in the twenty-first century when conversing with an executive of the Ford motor company, quoting from tracts which were themselves written 2000 years and more before.

Adapt, adopt, evolve—these are the things which socialism must do (with integrity) if it is to stay relevant to the citizens of the future.

SSP Policy

(Agreed at Oct. 2007 Conference)

Conference resolves that:

  1. While religious schools continue to receive state funding, all suitably qualified teachers should be eligible to apply for all posts within them.
  2. Religious or denominational schools should be phased out as they result in separating children on the grounds of faith, which can only serve to alienate them from one another.
  3. That we wish to end the practice of collective worship in school assemblies.

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