Marxism and Religion
Credit: John Griffin, RTC Foreign Correspondent
The aim of Marxists is to fight for the socialist transformation of society on a national and international scale. We believe that the capitalist system has long ago outlived its historical usefulness and has converted itself into a monstrously oppressive, unjust and inhuman system. The ending of exploitation and the creation of a harmonious socialist world order, based on a rational and democratically run plan of production, will be the first step in the creation of a new and higher form of society in which men and women will relate to themselves as human beings.
We believe that it is the duty of any humane person to support the fight against such a system which involves untold misery, disease, oppression and death for millions of people in the world. We wholeheartedly welcome the participation in the struggle of every progressive person, irrespective of nationality, the colour of their skin, or their religious beliefs. We also welcome the opportunity of a dialogue between Marxists and Christians, Muslims and other groups. However, in order to fight effectively, it is necessary to work out a serious programme, policy and perspective that can guarantee success. We believe that only Marxism (scientific socialism) provides such a perspective.
The question of religion is a complex one, and can be approached from a number of different standpoints: historical, philosophical, political, etc. Marxism began as a philosophy: dialectical materialism. A very good explanation of this philosophy can be found in works such as Engels’ Anti-During and Ludwig Feuerbach’s, Reason in Revolt, Marxist philosophy and Modern Science provides a comprehensive modern account of the same ideas. This is the starting-point for a clarification of the philosophical position of Marxism on religion.
Philosophical Materialism and Science
Marxists stand on the basis of philosophical materialism, which rules out the existence of any supernatural entity, or anything outside or “above” nature. There is, in fact, no need for any such explanation for life and the universe — least of all today. Nature furnishes its own explanations and it furnishes them in great abundance. Science has proven that humankind has developed — like every other species — over millions of years, and that life itself has evolved from inorganic matter. There cannot be a brain without a central nervous system, and there cannot be a central nervous system without a material body, blood, bones, muscles etc. In turn, the body must be sustained by food derived from a material environment. The most recent discoveries of genetics in the human genome project have furnished incontrovertible evidence for the materialist standpoint.
The revelation of the genome’s long and complex history, so long hidden from view, has prompted discussions about the nature of humankind and the process of creation. Incredibly, in the first decade of the twenty first century, the ideas of Darwin are being challenged by the so-called Creationist movement in the USA, which wants American schoolchildren to be taught that God created the world in six days, that man was created from dust and that the first woman was made out of one of his ribs. The latest discoveries have finally exploded the nonsense of Creationism. It has comprehensively demolished the notion that every species was created separately, and that Man, with his eternal soul, was especially created to sing the praises of the Lord. It is now clearly proved that humans are not at all unique creations. The results of the human genome project show conclusively that we share our genes with other species — that ancient genes helped to make us who we are. Humans share their genes with other species going far back into the mists of time. In fact, a small part of this common genetic inheritance can be traced back to primitive organisms such as bacteria. In many cases, humans have exactly the same genes as rats, mice, cats, dogs and even fruit flies. Indeed, scientists have now found some 200 genes that humans share with bacteria. In this way, the final proof of evolution has been established. In a fundamental way, no divine intervention is required.
Life after Death?
So, in spite of all this scientific development, why does Religion still have a grip on the minds of millions? Religion offers men and women the consolation of a life after death. Philosophical materialism denies the possibility of such a thing. Mind, ideas, the soul — all these things are the product of matter organised in a certain way. Organic life arises from inorganic life at a certain stage, and likewise, simple forms of life — bacteria, single celled organisms etc. — evolve into more complex forms involving a backbone, a central nervous system and a brain. The desire to live forever is at least as old as civilisation — probably still older. There is something in our being that resists the idea that “I” must some day cease to be. And indeed, to give up forever this wonderful world of sunshine and flowers, the wind in my face, the sound of the water, the company of my loved ones — to enter an endless realm of nothingness — is hard to take or even to comprehend. Thus, from early on, humans have sought an imaginary communion with a non-material spirit world where — it is believed — a part of me will live on. This was indeed one of the most powerful and enduring messages of Christianity: “I can live after death”
The problem is that the life that is led by most men and women in present-day society is so hard, so intolerable, or at least so meaningless, that the idea of a life after death seems the only way to invest it with any meaning. We will come back to this most important question later. But in the meantime, let us analyse the precise meaning of the idea of life after death. And the instant it is subjected to a serious analysis, it crumbles to dust. The problem was understood long ago, among others by the Greek neo-Platonist philosopher, Plotinus, who said of immortality: “It is unspeakable, for if you say anything of it you make it a particular.” The same idea is to be found in Indian writing on the soul: “The self is to be described by No, No, (neti, neti). He is incomprehensible, for He cannot be comprehended.” (See A.C. Bouquet, Comparative Religion, p. 162). Thus, for the philosophers and theologians, the soul is just a “night in which all cows are black” as Hegel would have said. And yet, in everyday life, people with no education at all speak with confidence on the subject of the soul and life after death. They imagine it is just like waking up after a sleep and being blissfully united with long-lost loved ones, to live on happily ever after.
The soul is supposed to be immaterial. But what is life without matter? The destruction of the physical body means the end of life of the individual being. True, the trillions of individual atoms that make up our body do not disappear, but reappear in different combinations. In that sense we are all immortal, because matter can neither be created nor destroyed. Admittedly, there are spiritualists who insist that they hear voices although no physical being is present. The answer to this is quite simple: if there is a voice, there must be vocal chords — or else we do not know what a voice is! Try as you will, you cannot separate a single one of the manifestations of our human life activity from the material body.
The common idea of “life after death” is more or less a continuation of the life we have led on earth (since we can know no other). After the soul has fled the body, it apparently “wakes up” in a beautiful land where we are miraculously united with our loved ones, to live a life of eternal joy in which sickness and old age are banished. It is sufficient to pose the question concretely to see that this is impossible. If we consider all the things that make life worth living: eating good food, drinking fine wines (or, for the English, a good strong cup of tea), singing, dancing, embracing, making love etc., it will be immediately evident that all these activities are inseparably connected with the body and its physical attributes. More cerebral pastimes like talking, reading, writing and thinking are equally bound up with our bodily organs. The same is true of breathing, or any other of the activities which, in their totality, we call life.
As a matter of fact, an existence from which all pain and suffering were absent would be intolerable for human beings. A world in which everything was white would actually be the same as a world in which everything was black. From a strictly medical point of view, pain has an important function. It is not just an evil, but a warning from the body that all is not well. Pain is part of the human condition. Not only that: pain and pleasure are dialectically related. Without the existence of pain, pleasure could not exist. Don Quixote explained to Sancho Panza that the best sauce was hunger. Likewise, we rest far better after a period of vigorous exertion. In the same way, death is an integral part of life. Life is not conceivable without death. We begin to die the moment we are born, for in fact, it is only the death of trillions of cells and their replacement by trillions of new cells, that constitutes life and human development. Without death there could be no life, no growth, no change, no development. Thus, the attempt to banish death from life — as if the two things could be separated — is to arrive at a state of absolute immutability, changeless, static equilibrium. But this is just another name for — death. For there can be no life without change and movement.
But what harm is there in believing in another life? Not a lot, it might seem. And yet, is it not undesirable to miseducate men and women, and encourage them to construct their lives around an illusion? To the degree that we put behind us all illusions and see the world as it really is, and ourselves as we really are, we can acquire the necessary knowledge to change the world and ourselves. What we are as individual personalities is intimately bound up with our material bodies and has no existence separate and apart from these. We are born, we live and we die, just like all other living organisms in the universe. Each generation must live its life and then make way for the new generations which are destined to take their place. The aspiration to immortality, the imagined right to live forever, is at bottom egotistical and unrealistic. Rather than waste time striving for a non-existent “other world”, it is necessary to strive to make this world a fit place to live in. Because for the great majority of men and women who are born into this world, the question is not whether there is a life after death, but rather, if there is a worthwhile life before death.
The knowledge that this life is fleeting, that we and our loved ones will not always be here, far from being a cause for dismay, should inspire us with a passionate love of life, and a burning desire to make it better for all. We know that every flower is born only to wither, and in some sense the transience of the bloom lends it a tragic beauty. But we also know that nature blossoms afresh each spring, and that the eternal cycle of birth and death that is the essence of every living thing is what gives life its bittersweet flavour. That comedy and tragedy, the laughter and the tears, these are what makes life the rich mosaic of human sensations that it is. This is our inescapable destiny as human beings. For we are humans, not gods, and must embrace our human condition. We have the disadvantage over the gods that we are mortal. But we also have the great advantage over them that we actually exist in flesh and blood, whereas they are mere disembodied figments of the imagination.