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from the Weekly People
July 24, 1976
The issue of religion, in all its many and varied forms, again seems to be pushing its way to the center of the social stage. The ruling class itself has injected Jerry Brown's "Eastern mysticism" and Jimmy Carter's pious evangelical sermons into the presidential campaign. Out of capitalism's social decay and intense alienation has come an endless stream of cultist sects. Through issues like abortion and women's rights, the institutions of organized religion are once more actively entering the realm of political debate. Within their own ranks, as well, there are conflicts reflecting the struggles outside.
Altogether it seems an appropriate time to look again at how the socialist movement views the nature, and uses, of religion. One point should be clear from the start. Individual religious freedom and the rights of private conscience are rights that should be defended. They are also rights that would be fully guaranteed in a socialist society. In this sense, religion may be said to be a "private matter," meaning simply that no society can justifiably coerce its members into adopting any official set of beliefs.
But religion is also an ideological question and socialists cannot blind themselves to the class interests that religious ideology has generally served.
Who could look at Jerry Brown's "Buddhist austerity" rhetoric and fail to see the capitalist service his "spiritual" doubletalk performs? In his quest for the job of number one ruling-class front man, Jimmy Carter has made extensive hypocritical use of religious pretensions to erect a moral facade for a criminal class and a decadent system. Reverend Sun Myung Moon mixes religion and South Korean fascism, while his couterpart Billy Graham serves up an American version of the same brew. The string of countless "gurus" and charlatans who peddle idealist delusions and individual "salvation" to working-class youth are equally involved in diverting discontent and sowing confusion about social reality.
All these examples have more in common than open support for the status quo. They, along with numerous other, often more subtle movements, are working to foster a seriously debilitating view of the world.
It was not accidental that in developing the dialectical method and materialist world outlook, Karl Marx made a piercing critique of religion and idealism in general. He showed how such views mystified the workings of the world and society, instead of helping humanity to understand them. He showed how religious illusions led people to accept the status quo of class oppression on the one hand, while blinding them to their own ability to change society on the other.
This mystification of social reality, the idea that some "outside force" directs the world; that it can only be understood by "revelation," or that blind submission to the unknown or unknowable is somehow inevitable for the human race, are illusions which have helped to keep the oppressed in chains for ages. The socialist movement knows that the world can be understood by scientific analysis and transformed through social practice. A clear knowledge of these points is essential for the working class to understand its own potential and power. Any perpetuation of religious ideas, which must by definition conflict with the scientific view of socialist materialism, ultimately works to keep the proletariat enslaved.
Does this clash mean socialists must force their views on workers who don't hold them, either today, in the course of revolutionary struggle, or under a future socialist society? Definitely not. A Marxist outlook requires conscious understanding and full awareness of social reality. While its importance can be taught, and its validity demonstrated in actual practice, a scientific Marxist outlook can't be forced on anyone against their will. Only a caricature of Marxism or a slavish adherence to dogma could be enforced in such a manner.
In a classless socialist society, with full democratic rights guaranteed for all, no one will be persecuted for their beliefs. Nor will there be any ruling class peddling ideology to protect its interests or domination.
At the same time, and in the same way that humanity has made progress toward higher understanding throughout history, the mystification of human experience called religion will gradually give way to the ever expanding, materialist, dialectical understanding of the reality around us.
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