Atheism—thank god—is gaining in popularity and in converts. Books by atheists have been appearing on non-fiction bestseller lists, such as Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion and Sam Harris's The End of Faith. Even Christopher Hitchens, who has been cheering on the US imperialist crusade with his Christian comrades in the 101st Keyboard Brigade, has cashed in on the trend with his new book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
These prominent atheists have pointed out the ill effects of religion on society and exposed the errors and outright stupidity of religious thought. Such efforts are all-too necessary today, unfortunately, especially in countries like the United States, where politicians cannot even order a cup of coffee without declaring: "God bless America." It is encouraging that atheists are now confidently voicing their ideas and that their criticism of religion has struck a chord with so many people.
If anything, though, the "new atheists" take religion too seriously, extending their criticism to the point that religion seems to be the fundamental cause of many—if not most—of the society's ills. Dawkins, for instance, depicts an epic struggle between religion (evil) and science (good), while effectively detaching both from the society in which they exist and function. He and others overlook capitalism and the role that religion and science play within this system of production for profit.
Neither religion nor science exists in a vacuum, isolated from society at large. The pursuit of science, for instance, is hardly exempt from the life-or-death struggle to accumulate capital that is all around us. Indeed, the main force that is narrowing the directions that scientific research can take is not religion but the capitalist system of production itself.
Examples of this abound, whether it be the degree of intellectual energy channeled to the creation of lethal new weapons for the never-ending struggle over markets and resources, or the simple fact that any new device must not only be useful but profitable as well. Under capitalism, the development of science and technology is driven forward by the unceasing competition to raise the productivity of labor as a means of augmenting profit—not a desire to better satisfy human needs—so the potential of science to improve the quality of our lives is severely curtailed.
Atheists thus do science no great favor in letting capitalism off the hook and presenting religion as the primary obstacle to the free development of science. They view religion as an ugly carbuncle crouching upon what would otherwise be a beautiful and healthy body, hoping to lance this unsightly growth with the sharp blade of science. But the carbuncle of religion is more like the ones that plagued poor Karl Marx, as it will always grow back, perhaps in a more "delicate" spot, as long as society remains in a constricted and unhealthy state.
Having said all of that, socialists still enthusiastically welcome the new books by atheists. It is just that we would go a step further. In addition to pointing out (for the thousand-and-first time) that religion is bunk, or describing its negative impact on society, we would pose the more interesting question: Why does religious thought continue to exist (and even flourish) in modern capitalist society? That is to say: Why does "God"—who has been declared dead on so many occasions—keep popping up in people's imaginations?
To answer that question we need to consider the relationship between religion and society. More specifically: What is the usefulness of religion as far as capitalism is concerned, and what aspects of life in capitalist society make religious thought appealing to individuals?
A convenient untruth
In a class-divided society, as capitalism so clearly is, religious thought comes in handy for those in positions of wealth and power. It promises workers—who happen to form the bulk of the population—that we will get some pie in the sky (after we die), as a reward for our suffering here on earth. Religious leaders encourage their working class "flock" to stoically accept their existence as wage slaves, going on about how "the meek shall inherit the earth." The benefits to the ruling class of inculcating workers with such a masochistic outlook goes without saying.
Granted, the rich are lambasted in most "holy books" and told that they should give up their wealth if they hope to enter heaven. And this would pose a real concern to them if such a place actually existed. In reality, the religious criticism of the rich and powerful, far from threatening their social position, only serves to reinforce their rule. Religion may promise that the filthy rich will be punished—but the court date is in the hereafter, not the here-and-now.
While religious ideology is no doubt a useful means of dampening social discontent, it would be mistaken, I think, to exaggerate how effective it is today, at least in the urban areas where most people live and work. It seems safe to say that the key ideology propagated by capitalists is not religion, but nationalism, which is more effective in blinding workers to their class interests and chaining them to a system that turns their blood and sweat into profits.
Capitalists, however, do not have to choose between religion and nationalism. Both come in handy as far as distorting the nature of the problems we face and offering false solutions. They also complement each other nicely: religion encouraging patient suffering, while nationalism offers a way to channel frustrations. The point to note here is simply that one important reason why religion continues to exist, and to be enthusiastically propagated, is that a religious outlook—particularly its focus on a better life after death instead of here on earth—serves the interests of the minority ruling class.
And this is also an important reason for socialists to oppose religion. Still, in our zeal to debunk religion, we should not forget that it is only one ideological form at the disposal of the capitalist class. We need to remember that our criticism of religion is one part of a broader struggle against the ideas that hinder the socialist movement.
The need to believe
Pointing out the benefits of religious ideology for the capitalist class, however, does not account for why individuals actually believe in religion.
Part of the answer to that question, as already touched on, is that religion can diminish the frustrations we experience in class society, offering the hope (illusion) of divine reward and retribution in an afterlife. It seems likely, though, that there are more people who believe in the possibility of winning the lottery some day than who truly and consistently believe in the existence of heaven and hell.
Perhaps some souls do invest in religious faith in the hope of later gain, or out of fear of eternal damnation, but that sort of purely selfish impulse does not adequately explain the stubborn charms of religion in modern-day capitalism. More than the temptation of immortality it offers, much of religion's power seems to come from its view of the real world in which we live and the answers it provides to baffled and worried minds.
The attraction of a religious worldview is not hard to understand in the case of the early human societies. Surrounded by a natural world that was poorly understood and often experienced as a hostile force, religion provided answers and a good deal of comfort. A terrifying flash of lightening or the roar of thunder, for example, could be explained as the sky god communicating his anger or indigestion to the mortals down below. Even this early religious notion that the world is governed by the arbitrary decisions of (often peevish) gods must have been far more reassuring than a view of the world as complete chaos.
The development of science chipped away at those unfounded religious beliefs, answering questions about the natural world that had previously been explained by fairy tales. And with the increase in scientific knowledge, the natural world became less threatening and more subject to human control.
The social world, however, continued to be a confusing place. And with the development of capitalism, where relations between human beings in production present themselves as relations between things, society became even more difficult to decipher. Not only confusing, capitalist society is every bit as hostile as the natural environment was to early human societies. If the primitive hunter feared the lion in the bush or death by starvation, workers today face the danger of unemployment or crushing debt, not to mention the wars and environmental devastation that continually arise from a system driven by competition for profit. Even the "lucky ones" with jobs face the drudgery of work in the office, at the cash register, or on the production line—driven only by a dire need for money. And when boom turns to bust, or the financial bubble bursts, those workers too might be thrown out on the street. As the saying goes: "It's a jungle out there."
In the face of this dizzying anarchy that characterizes capitalist production, our knowledge gained from the natural sciences is of little help. (In fact, more than a few scientists contribute to our sense of despair by advancing the fatuous argument that selfish, competitive behavior is a reflection of an unchanging human nature, rather than being determined by our social system.) Religious ideas can thrive in this situation. Religion not only offers the comforting thought that if this world goes to hell there is a "better world" out there after death, but also provides an explanation of why things are so bad, arguing that it is the outcome of our evil thoughts and actions. Religion even holds out the hope that life on earth could be better if we would only be less selfish and love—or at least tolerate—our neighbors.
By offering a criticism of the status quo, and suggestions for social improvements, religion is able to attract some of the vast majority of people who are frustrated with life under capitalism. But the superficial criticism that religion offers only serves to bolster capitalism, suggesting that the problem is our "sinful" behavior rather than a social system that encourages and rewards such behavior.
The "promised land"
Socialists present an analysis that differs sharply from the religious worldview (and from the views of those who mechanically apply theories of natural science to explain human behavior under capitalism).
Instead of viewing present-day society (capitalism) as unfathomable chaos or an eternal state of affairs linked to our human nature, socialists arrive at an understanding of its fundamental nature as a system driven by the need to generate profit through the exploitation of labor. It is this essence of the social system that accounts, above all, for the selfish or "sinful" behavior that is so rampant within it. This understanding of capitalism does not exempt socialists from the difficulties of living under it, needless to say, but it does reveal the "method to the madness"—just as science has demystified nature. And this understanding is also a great source of hope. It shows us that we can solve many of the problems we face by moving beyond capitalism—towards a new, cooperative form of society.
In such a socialist society, where class divisions have dissolved and our lives are no longer at the mercy of the market, religion will have lost its basis in reality and its seductive powers will quickly fade away. Conversely, as long as its social foundation remains intact, religion will continue to exist—no matter how many times it has been refuted.
Atheists who only fight against religion—turning a blind eye to the hell of capitalism—thus ironically end up prolonging the life of their bête noire.MS