Marxism and religion

Date: Tuesday 28th July
Time: 13:00 - 16:30 (London time)

One of Marx’s best-known quotes is “religion is the opium of the people”, but that is not the end of the question. Marxism rejects all forms of superstition. Religion plays a profoundly reactionary role in society. But it cannot be overcome by argument alone. We must instead dismantle its social basis: the class system itself, which causes such misery and hardship that many people can only cope through the promise of an eternal reward after death. With the creation of a just and decent existence on earth, religion would serve no purpose. Our speaker, Alex Grant, is a leading member of Fightback, the Canadian section of the IMT. 




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Alex: Is there a god? As a Marxist Materialist I would have to say no.

Because Marxism is a materialist philosophy. Materialism states that matter is primary, and thought does not occur without a brain. And you don’t get a brain without a body, you do not get a body without food, and you don’t get food without a material environment. Aristotle said that “man first begins to philosophize when the necessities of life are provided”. This is another way of saying, “before we can think we must eat!”

Materialism states nothing is supernatural. “Super”-natural means “beyond” nature, and nothing is beyond nature.

We have a “monist” view; everything comes from nature and is potentially understandable by studying nature, by observing and analysing nature.

Ideas are merely the highest forms to arise out of nature. In contradistinction to Marxism, religious idealism is “dualist”. Ideas exist above and independent of nature, and the biggest idea is God. Idealists accuse Materialists of trying to explain everything. When in fact, the opposite is true. Socrates supposedly said, “All that I know is that I know nothing.” He meant that knowledge is infinite, and what I know is finite. What I do not know overwhelms what I do know, but that does not mean that the unknown is unknowable. It is religions that try to explain everything. A Materialist will say, “I don’t know, let's investigate.” Religion says, “God did it, no need to investigate”, because saying God did something is an explanation.

Religion attempts to give answers to big questions of life:

Why do I exist?

Why does the world exist?

Why do bad things happen?

What happens when you die?

Let’s have a go at answering these questions:

 “Why do I exist?” “Because God made man in his own image.” Various Gods have tended to always look like their worshippers. Viking gods dressed like Vikings. Greek gods dressed like Greeks. And if birds had gods, they’d probably have wings. It’s not God that creates man in his own image, but man that creates gods that look like them. Michel de Montaigne said, “Man is quite stark mad. He cannot make a worm, and yet he makes gods by the dozen.” Materialism has no problem answering why we are here – Natural Selection. Organic life emerges from inorganic molecules. Single cell life appears, multi-cellular, vertebrates, mammals, and eventually, primates. Through collective labour, a primate emerged that had the ability to think abstractly and plan. “I’ll chase that gazelle around that tree, you hide behind it with a stick and hit it with it when it comes around.” This statement involves planning and understanding of cause and effect. Engels explained this fantastically in ‘The part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man.’ Eventually consciousness evolves, and even religion. Some religious people state that the materialist explanation is boring and grey. I think people who say this have no sense of imagination about the beauty and complexity of reality. It’s that curiosity that really drives science.

Incidentally, the best argument for Natural Selection is not how perfect everything is, but how imperfect everything is. Why do you have an appendix? It is totally useless. Why would an “intelligent designer” give you an appendix? Does he want people to get appendicitis and die? Rabbits have huge appendixes for digesting vegetation, and an appendix was useful for our common ancestor with Rabbits. Our diet has changed, so we no longer need it. It is a vestigial structure that will likely disappear after thousands of years of evolution. I find the answer, “God did it, don’t ask questions”, far more boring than investigating the mysteries of nature.

Our second question is “Why does the world exist?”

In the Bible it says, “in the beginning there was the word”. God separated the heavens from the earth and rested on the sabbath day. But in the beginning was not the word, but the deed. Nobody was around to have words for another 4 billion years or more.

Gases from a previously exploded star condensed to form the sun and the planets.

Napoleon asked Laplace “what role did God in his theory of the solar system?”

Laplace answered: “I had no need for that hypothesis”, because God exists two steps away from established fact. Here is what is known. Here is what is unknown.

Between these two lines is where religious and scientific debate happens, but the march of history shows science advancing and religion falling back. People used to think that the earth was flat, although some people still do. Galileo was persecuted by the Inquisition for saying that the Earth goes around the Sun.

Currently, we don’t fully understand the structure of the universe. Religion says that God stands before the Big Bang, lighting the match, and says that this is unknowable. Marxist materialists say nothing is unknowable. We just don’t currently understand the structure and the evolution of the universe very well. However, we are confident that in time we will, and there is no need for a God. The fact that biology is better understood than cosmology has led to there being more religion amongst physicists than there is among biologists. We have to ask ourselves, why do we even care about the question “why does the universe exist?” Because it is a large, complicated phenomena that affects our lives. The answer, “God created the universe” isn’t actually an answer. It is replacing one large, complicated thing with another. If explaining the origin of the universe is interesting, surely explaining the origin of the thing that created the universe is even more interesting. Religion moves the question one step back, and then says you’re not allowed to ask questions about God.

(Next question) “Why do bad things happen?”

Religion has two answers for this. Either because you angered the Lord. This is the Old Testament God, that some religious preachers said created AIDS to punish homosexuals. Or you’ve got the New Testament God who moves in mysterious ways.

[Says that] There is a divine plan, and everything will turn out for the best eventually. For example, “What the divine plan is for COVID, God only knows.”

Materialism has two answers to why bad things happen as well. The first, basic, answer is because we don’t understand what’s going on. Like the early days of the COVID outbreak, nobody understood what was happening. But then there’s a second explanation for bad things, which is because of class society. We understand perfectly what’s going on but the ruling class doesn’t care. For example: now, COVID-19 is far worse for poor people and Black people. That is an explicit expression of class society, because capitalism is horror without end: wars, violence, racism, unemployment, sickness, and environmental destruction. People want an answer to all this horror: “Why does it exist?” People also want some control: “If I pray hard enough, it’ll all go away, and if I don’t pray, worse things will happen.” Fear and ignorance are very powerful motivators and that leads us to, “if I don’t believe, I will go to Hell.”

[Which leads us to our last question] “What happens when you die?”

Nothing is more frightening than death and it’s comforting to know that you will meet your loved ones when you die. The fear of Hell and the comfort of Heaven help to keep people ‘in line.’ Napoleon said “In religion I see the social order. The idea of Heaven saves the rich from being massacred by the poor.” If people didn’t think there was something better later, then many could not survive. People couldn’t cope with the “is this it?” We have to fight for a better world.

 Materialism says, “from atoms I came and to atoms I shall return.” Every blood cell in your body contains haemoglobin. At the centre of that haemoglobin molecule is an iron atom. And that iron atom was created at the centre of a dying star that went supernova. We are literally made of star dust. “I was alive, I was matter organized in a certain way. Self-conscious matter, fighting against the laws of entropy.” But eventually we all succumb to entropy, our atoms return to the universe. The only immortality we can have is either via our children, or by doing good things that are remembered. That’s why we fight for the working class, we fight for a better humanity, and this gives meaning to our lives.

I’ve been detailing a number of rational arguments against religious philosophy. Yet if you look at history, you see that rational arguments don’t work against religion. They don’t work with somebody who genuinely believes. Marx and Lenin explain this many times. Religion has a real materialist base and will not disappear while that material base continues to exist. Most know the quote “Religion is the opium of the masses”, although this can sound a little bit insulting to those who believe. But most people don’t know the full quote: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. The heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” Religion will not disappear while suffering, oppression and poverty exist. The key question is not whether there is life after death. The key question is whether there is life before death. When people have terrible conditions, they need to believe to give them an outlet. We must have a materialist, historical understanding of religion.

At one point religion actually represented a revolution in human consciousness. Humans started asking “Why?” Animals don’t ask why. Asking why a necessary stage in consciousness is. [For example] “Why does the sun come up? Why does the river flow? Why does the tree grow?” Because of the sun god, because of the tree spirit, because of the river sprite. The answers are wrong, but the question itself is revolutionary. This spirituality is called Animism. Spirits are given to inanimate objects, and it corresponds to a primitive classless society. However, the birth of class society corresponds to the real transition from spirituality to religion. A surplus of class society allowed the formation of a priest caste. These “thinkers”, living off the labour of others, were able to track the stars. Egyptian priests predicted the flooding of the Nile – very important for agriculture. Stonehenge was used to predict midsummer and midwinter, here you see “science” is combined with magic and ritual. If you’ve ever been to Stonehenge, you’ll see there are embankments around the edge of it. It’s believed that these embankments were there to keep the masses out. The priests and other sectors of the ruling class would go inside, study the stones, and then come out and tell the people it was a fertile time. And then they’d all have a big party. However, we don’t just see standing stones in the Old World, there’s also standing stones in the Americas.

In Columbia I visited a village called Villa de Leyva. And just outside of this village there were a whole series of standing stones, all in line to predict the seasons. But next to the stone calendar were other stones. These were labelled “El Infiernito.” These were 5-metre-high stone phalluses, that were there for a fertility festival. [Through this you can] see that religion has evolved in different societies. It is in the interest of religion to promote ideas over the material world. This bolsters the privilege of the priest caste over the labouring masses. The Roman philosopher Seneca said, “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful”.

As class society changed so did religion. Slave society, with many masters, had parallels in polytheism – many masters, many gods. Eventually the Roman Empire came into crisis and Christianity arose as a revolutionary mass movement. It was part of an anti-imperialist movement of Jews in Roman-occupied Palestine. To go with its revolutionary roots, Christianity was referred to as the “religion of women and slaves”.

The early Christians were communists and shared their wealth. There are some fantastic anti-capitalist statements in the bible: “money is the root of all evil”, “a rich man cannot enter Heaven”, or at least it’s supposed to be very difficult. But in the material world, the Christians also provided some sort of collective welfare in collapsing Roman society. The Roman Emperors tried to oppress the rising Christian movement. Emperor Nero threw the Christians to the lions, creating a great number of martyrs in the process. But those martyrs were used to rally the cause. All experience shows that religion grows on oppression. If people really believe that Heaven and salvation is the only way out of this suffering, then there’s no reason to recant because you’re going to end this way out of the suffering.

The crisis in the Roman Empire eventually led to a split in the ruling class, and Constantine leant on the Christians to win power. He convened the Council of Nicaea and brought together all the different Christian factions, to tell them “you must come to a common doctrine”. The story is that he locked the door and left them without food until they sorted it out, in the process of creating Christianity as a state religion, ditching the communist baggage while becoming a state religion. This gave Rome a period of stability, prior to its inevitable collapse. And in power, the Christians enacted terrible oppression against the “pagan” polytheists.

Regarding Feudalism, Monotheist Catholic Christianity was the perfect religion for this.

“One Church. One God. One King.” The Church was an intrinsic part of the state and a major landowner. It was inherently conservative and opposed to progress. There were massacres of the Inquisition and crusades. In response to this religious oppression, wrapped up with state repression, the rising Bourgeois turned to Protestantism. Luther translated the Bible in the 16th century. Previously it was only in Latin, so only the priests could read it, who then interpreted it in any way they saw fit.

People ask for the difference between Protestantism and Catholicism. There are lots of outer differences: Catholic churches and cathedrals are very grand, with lots of gold everywhere, but Protestant churches are a lot plainer. And there’s that famous protestant work ethic, you can see how it’s linked to the bourgeois. But there’s one major doctrinal difference. The Catholics believe in salvation by deeds and the Protestants believe in salvation by faith. For Catholics, you could buy forgiveness. There is a list of prices for various sins, including rape and murder and infanticide. This is how they got the money for huge cathedrals. But the Protestant salvation by faith is a lot cheaper. “I have faith, I’m saved”. This allowed the bourgeois to use their capital to reinvest in production instead of building cathedrals.

This leads us to the English revolution in the 17th century. Everyone should listen to Alan Woods’ excellent series on the revolution. In that, Alan explains how the only way that political tendencies could express themselves was via religious sects. Reaction was Catholic, the ‘Big Bourgeois’ were Presbyterian, and the Vanguard were Anabaptists and Independents. When you look at history you see that there are two gods: the reactionary god of the ruling class, and the potentially revolutionary god of the masses.

We fight against the Church when it unites with the ruling class to oppress the masses.

But we unite with believers when their faith is how they express their opposition to oppression. We have seen Liberation Theology in Latin America. As a Venezuela solidarity worker, I have had the honour of working hand in hand with many Liberation Theologists. You saw the beginning of the 1905 Russian Revolution, where the masses lined up behind Father Gapon. I do a radio show with “The Radical Reverend” Cheri DiNovo, a United Church minister. We haven’t actually discussed religion on the show yet, but in a few weeks, she’s giving a talk on how Jesus was a Communist.

Lenin said that during a strike is probably the worst time to bring up atheism. The boss will try everything in its power to divide and conquer the workers. We need unity to win a strike. We can discuss whether there is a God after the workers have fought together and built that solidarity by fighting.

[Now] we’ll move forward in history 150 years to the French revolution. The French revolution didn’t need religion like the English revolution. The revolutionary French bourgeois were atheists and the counter-revolution based upon the religious Vendee.

So, we open our arms to religious workers who want to fight oppression. But while we do that, we must be clear on the reactionary role of the Church. Pope Alexander VI issued the “Doctrine of Discovery” in 1493. And this was the papal justification for the murderous colonization by Christopher Columbus. It is estimated that 175 million Indigenous were killed in the colonization of the Americas. Remember that next time a right wing idiot starts yelling about 100 million people killed by communism. That 100 million is false and Colonialism capitalism killed 175 million Indigenous, who were “blessed” by the Church. South African archbishop Desmond Tutu has a good quote about colonialism: “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, 'Let us pray.' We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.”

We’ve seen incredible corruption scandals in all of the Churches. They’ve covered up sexual assaults. In Canada, all the Churches were involved in native residential schools. Thousands and thousands were abused and murdered. And this has been labelled a genocide. In Ireland, there’s horrendous stories. In convents they’ve found piles of baby skeletons from unwed mothers. We must have a clear-eyed view about the reactionary role of the Church when united with the state. That’s why Marxists believe in a total separation of Church and state, freedom of religion and freedom from religion.

Nobody will oppress you for your belief, but you cannot oppress anybody else, you can’t demand tax breaks or state funding. Religion, with respect to the state, should be a totally private affair. It should occur on your own time with your own money. This is not the case in many countries. There’s state funding of Catholic schools. The Pakistani state is officially Islamic. Judaism is the official religion of Israel, and Palestinians are second-class citizens. This is totally reactionary. We will fight against all forms of religious oppression. Marxists were at the forefront of fighting anti-Semitism of the Tsarist state that organized regular pogroms against the Jews that killed thousands. This led to many Jews becoming Marxists, like Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg.

One feature of state religion is hypocrisy. You’ve got very pious religion men like George Bush and Tony Blair who have absolutely no problem using religion to justify the killing of thousands. They’ve mobilized Islamophobia and advanced the idea of a “clash of civilizations”, all to justify imperialist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s estimated there’s been half a million violent deaths in these countries, directly as a result of the imperialist invasion. And then millions more social deaths and excess death rates. Islamophobia is now totally rampant in western capitalism.

We’ve seen under the false banner of “secularism”, the oppression of Muslim women wearing head coverings. Even some feminists have jumped on board this oppression of Muslim women, saying how Iranian women are forced to wear head coverings. In Iran you have the state telling Muslim women that they must wear head coverings. In France and Quebec and other countries, you have the state telling Muslim women they cannot wear head coverings. Marxists believe that the state should stop telling women what to wear, and we unite with them against state repression. In the west this is done under the so-called banner of secularism, but such oppressive secularism does absolutely nothing to end religiosity. It is just a way of attacking immigrants and dividing and conquering the working class. Marxists offer our solidarity against this racist religious oppression. We aim to unite the working class against all state oppression.

The imperialists have also tried to use religion to stop socialism. They funded the Taliban in Afghanistan to destabilize the Soviet-backed regime. The CIA and Mossad built up Hamas as a counterweight to socialist Palestinian factions. But now Islamic fundamentalism is a Frankenstein’s monster of Imperialism. We’ve seen Al Qaeda and ISIS rise up and bite the imperialists that previously funded them. However, there isn’t just Islamic fundamentalism, there’s Hindu fundamentalism in India, Buddhist fundamentalism in Sri Lanka, Jewish fundamentalism in the occupied territories, and Christian fundamentalism in the United States. However, we shouldn’t let this cloud our view that religion is in general decline. The United States is one of the most religious western countries, but even in the United States religion is decreasing. In 1998, 70% of Americans were a member of a church. By, 2018, that had been reduced to 50%.

The non-religious are increasing. In the early 1970s, only 6% of Americans were non-religious, and now it is about 22%

Women are around 10% more likely to be religious than men in United States. This makes sense because religion tends to have a stronger hold on the more oppressed layers. But when you see the fundamentalist evangelical Christians, they’re 61% men.

You see this polarization in society, movement to the left and to the right. Whilst you see a growth in non-religious attitudes, you also see for those who stay religious, more fundamentalist Christianity. A higher proportion of white protestants in the United States are born again Christians. These churches tend to be quite reactionary, with 66% of church members considering themselves Republicans. They oppose evolution and abortion and make up 25% of the US population. The hypocrisy of these churches for supporting Donald Trump is amazing, given his repeated adultery and general sinfulness. It is all part of a capitalist attempt to use religion to divide and conquer the working class. Divide and conquer is a major feature of religion. You saw the divide in the partition of India and Pakistan, you see the divide in Northern Ireland. They tried to use religion against Venezuelan Revolution. Chavez dealt with this quite smartly. He quoted socialist bible verses, said that Jesus was a communist fighting imperialism, and attacked the Church for its hypocrisy and for supporting the rich.

If you want to see how not to deal with religion, look to Stalinism. The Stalinists persecuted religion. This was very stupid. The Romans showed how religious persecution merely leads to an increase in religion, it makes the religion stronger.

It made the Church the centre for pro-capitalist opposition in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. After the fall of Stalinism, you saw how the former-Stalinist states were invaded by a wave of religious sects. So, we cannot fall for divide and conquer, but we also cannot rely upon bourgeois rationalists to stop religion. About 15 years ago, the geneticist Richard Dawkins organized “New Atheists” to attack religion. But his rationalist arguments didn’t actually convince anybody who was actually religious.

It was totally devoid of any class analysis or class approach. You can’t ignore the class question when you’re discussing religion. Subsequently Dawkins turned more Islamophobic and more openly reactionary. If you look at the people who were New Atheists 10 years ago, today they’ve split into two camps. Half of them are communists and half of them are fascists. I know even some comrades who were New Atheists back then.

So, we fight for class solidarity and unity of workers across religious lines.

Religion is a private affair regarding the state, or at least it should be. But what approach do we take within the revolutionary party? Lenin wrote quite a lot on this.

You do not have to be an atheist to join the International Marxist Tendency, but the International Marxist Tendency is atheist. We don’t close our doors to good class fighters. If you believe that:

  • capitalism must be overthrown,
  • the working class needs an organization to help them do this,
  • and you are willing to build the IMT as that organization,

then you are welcome in our ranks.

We will discuss religion as comrades. We understand that people don’t give up their faith overnight. Also, for those very atheist Comrades, it’s very important to be patient with someone with belief, to not make fun of them, as they’ll get there. But to those with belief, we’re to say that being a communist is not just about being a fighter. It’s not just about what’s in your heart, although that is vitally important. Being a communist is also about thinking and understanding, which is why we’ve organized this fantastic school.

In our view, the best method of analysis is dialectical materialism. I have seen many communists become materialists as through fighting, they understood that dialectical materialism was the best method to win a victory for the workers. That’s what’s really important here, what will help us win victory for the workers and overthrow capitalism.

Amongst the youth, you’ve seen a general trend of rejecting religion. Millennials are 20% less religious than Generation X in the United States. Yet you’ve also seen a rise in so-called “spirituality.” In 2012, 19% of Americans were “spiritual but not religious.”

Five years later that had risen to 27%. Spirituality encompasses “New Age”, Astrology and Tarot, for example. Holding a belief in the supernatural, but a rejection of the church and state.

In some ways it’s progressive to reject organized religion but I’ve heard people say that this is harmless. Well, [the answer to this is] yes and no. You can see it as just a bit of entertainment to check your horoscope in the newspaper. But then I’ve actually seen people get really upset over this question, and that made me believe there’s something else going on. This spirituality must give people something more than just entertainment. Tarot and astrology are all linked in some way to predicting the future.

Capitalism is very scary and unpredictable for working class people. Terrible things happen on a regular basis, and people want some sense of control. Predicting the future, spirituality, gives people that control. But it is a false control. While spirituality is not part of the state, it is part of capitalism. Fortune telling is a $2-billion industry in the USA, and there are numerous stories of people being scammed and manipulated by so-called psychics. People have lost tens of thousands of dollars in the process.

We say, the best view of the world, if you want to change the world, is a view of the world derived from the world itself. Rejecting notions of the supernatural will help you change the world. There is nothing super-natural, nothing beyond nature. And having that clear-eyed understanding of reality is what’s really going to help you to change reality. This is what this entire discussion is about, changing the world!

We must understand capitalism if we wish to overthrow it and end all the evils of capitalism, which forces people to turn to either spirituality or religion. But we can’t demand a perfect working class to do this. We’re going to overthrow capitalism with the working class that exists today. Not an imaginary, “ideal” working class. Christians and Buddhists, Muslims and Jews, believers and non-believers, all sectors of the working class. We unite all those workers against capitalism. We build a new society without oppression, exploitation, and poverty. We can debate whether there is a Heaven in the sky while we’re actually concretely building a Heaven on earth.

Us atheists believe that under those improved conditions, religion will tend to wither away. If you remove oppression and poverty, people will feel less of a need to turn to these ideas. We’re also aware that this won’t happen immediately, it may take a few generations, but the point is to find out. The struggle builds the unity. As we struggle, we will learn from each other.

So, let’s get on with overthrowing capitalism! Thank you.


Jerome: In the 1905 article ‘Socialism and Religion’, Lenin wrote: “everywhere the reactionary bourgeoisie has concerned itself with the fomenting of religious strife in order to divert the attention of the masses from the really important and fundamental economic and political problems.” This is exactly what the French bourgeoisie and its politicians have been doing for many years on a massive scale. It takes the form of a permanent flow of attacks against Muslims in the media. There are millions of Muslim workers in France, mainly originating from Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. Very often these attacks are launched in the name of ‘secularism’, as Alex explained. [Secularism is] a very convenient word for covert racist propaganda because this is what it really is at the end of the day. It is the French bourgeoisie, and the state, that violates the principles of secularism. For example, they are massively financing religious private schools. 97% of private schools in France get state subventions to pay for the teachers and other expenses. This costs 8 billion euros of public money every year, while the Ministry of Culture, for example, has a budget of only 10 billion euros. Additionally, one part of these ten billion euros also ends up in the pockets of these religious institutions.

So much for French enlightenment (!).

Despite the attack mostly in the name of secularism, done daily, thousands of academics and journalists have made a career out of this reactionary propaganda. But regularly, these attacks take the form of a massive and official campaign orchestrated by the government, who proposes a new law or opens what is called a ‘national debate.’ In 2004, for example, the right-wing government proposed a law for forbidding the veil in the public schools. This has nothing to do with secularism. It is an attack against secularism because it's a case of the state intervening against the religious belief of people. Of course, bourgeois feminists supported this law and joined the chorus again against Muslims, workers, and youth. Even though because of this law, the Muslim private schools had an important influx of new students, which was perfectly predictable, and something we predicted. The main point here is that this law was mainly a pretext to launch a massive campaign in the media against the Muslims.

The campaign that lasted for many weeks, around two or three months, during which everything was thrown at the head of the Muslims. Quite often, we heard things like wearing a veil or going to the mosque is the first step towards Islamic fundamentalism.

We heard that from journalists, academics, politicians, a lot of people. We also heard calls to keep an eye on every Muslim to make sure they don't become terrorists.

They forbade the veil in school, so had had to find another trick, and so another question emerged: ‘Could mothers with a veil participate to school trips with their kids?’

But, if they forbid that, the first consequence would be that a lot of these kids will no longer go on school trips. Or else, they would be sent by their parents to a religious private school. This hasn't been voted for yet, but it has been on the agenda of several different governments for many years. This is precisely the aim – to transform a trivial question into a long campaign of anti-Muslim propaganda. Another example was the so-called debate on national identity, launched by Sarkozy in 2009. This again was directed against the Muslims, explicitly. This time the state organized not only debates in the media, but also public meetings where everyone could come and say what they think about national identity. The extreme white right wing were invited to these meetings, and the debate became so blatantly racist and xenophobic that even Sarkozy had to cancel the whole thing. The only good thing I can remember from this was the public intervention of [famous footballer] Eric Cantona, who asked “what is the national identity of French people? Well it's very simple, revolution.”

With the crisis of capitalism and intensification of the class struggle, the strategy of divide and rule is going to intensify, everywhere. It is very important that we develop the correct position on this question. On the one hand, we as Marxists can't make any concession to religious and mystical ideas. Above all we must denounce the reactionary role played by many religious institutions. On the other hand, our attitude to religious workers must be subordinated to the goal of uniting all the workers in the struggle for socialism. This means that we must clearly oppose every attempt to divide our class along religious lines. We must not fall into the trap of abstract propaganda against religion. As Lenin put it, no number of pamphlets and no amounts of preaching can enlighten the working class, if it is not enlightened by its own struggle against the dark forces of capitalism. Unity in this revolutionary struggle of the oppressed class for the creation of a paradise, on earth, is more important to us, than unity of proletarian opinion on paradise in heaven. Thank you.

Paras: I don’t need to go through the philosophical foundations of this discussion on religion because I think it is already well explained by Alex. It is obvious that the question of religion is far more relevant in those regions of this planet in which the bourgeoisie was, is, and will not be capable of completing the democratic revolution.

I’m not saying that the question of religion is already resolved 100% in the advanced capitalist countries, because in the recent crisis we’ve seen the questions of religion, nations and race are now emerging in the developed countries also. In some cases, the ruling class are promoting these questions. When they are unable to resolve an issue, they start to use that issue, it is their main instinctual feature of the capitalist class.

When it comes to the Muslim world, there’s not a single country which we can say the ruling classes completed the bourgeois revolution. Western imperialist powers, by creating Islamic fundamentalism, exploited this weakness of Muslim ruling class and still are doing this in recent times. By exploiting this weakness of the local ruling classes of the Muslim world, they are looting the resources, oil and everything from the Muslim countries.

Pakistan was the country that was created in the name of Islam, and there was no historical, geographical, and cultural need for the creation of this country. Because of this, revolutionaries of the Islamic world in general, and in Pakistan in particular, confront two specific tendencies while they are trying to build revolutionary forces.

Number one, there are a number of politically active students rejecting revolutionary ideas because they say they are un-Islamic. On the other hand, among progressive circles, there is a tendency which limits the whole political struggle to the so-called secular and democratic program. Betrayals and adventures of ex-Stalinists play an even far greater role than the objective conditions to the growth of both two tendencies. Lacking a clear scientific understanding and dialectical understanding, they used to ridicule and humiliate the religious sentiments publicly. They were verbally abusive to religious people and common people. These sectarian methods weakened their link with common people. After the failure of the ’68-69 revolution and then Afghan and Iranian revolution, imperialists and the local state machine used the sectarian attitudes against the whole movement, they imposed Islamic fundamentalism from above.

Dramatically, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, these ex-Stalinists, most of them who were the biggest prosecutors of religion, turned themselves into mysticism and spirituality. Others abandoned the class struggle, became liberals and joined NGOs.

That’s why, when the new generation of students and workers in Pakistan and the Islamic world, start to protest against the capitalist system, they are now entering the revolutionary arena. They are unable to distinguish between liberals, communists and mystics in Pakistan. It is our duty to present our ideas in a clear scientific way.

Marxism and liberalism are not sister ideologies, in fact they are opponent ideologies.

The purpose of liberals is to eliminate the religion, not the fundamentalism but the religion. The purpose of Marxists is to eliminate the objective and material base of this religious forces. Liberals hate and ridicule poor religious people, and we point out the reasons for these religious people. We point out the economic chains of the poor people who tie the minds of the people to the picket of this conservatism. For poor people, something is better than nothing. If they can’t buy medicine, they at least can pray for healing and recovery. Liberals can’t understand that religion has different meanings for different classes in society.

For the working-class religion is just a compulsion, but for petty bourgeois it manifests their hypocrisy and is their ruling class tool for oppression of the working class.

I will give you an example of the hypocrisy of the middle class in Pakistan. If you meet a businessman or a shopkeeper or a big liar, who was drinking alcohol and talking about several of his sex peers, and you ask him what is the solution of all problems of the Pakistani people, he will reply that it is all because of our distancing from Islamic teachings and that Islamic revolution is the only solution. Similarly, if you go to the gathering of some hardcore Islamists, and you ask them, “how many of you want to settle in Europe or the United States?”,none of them will refuse and all of them say that “we are willing to go to USA.” This is the severity of so-called Islamisation of Pakistani society and state. Even the judges, journalists and the politicians who constantly preaching Islam, are shipping their children and property to Europe and the US.

Some fools believe that socialism is non-practical and impossible in Islamic world.

This hypothesis is false not only on logical ground but also it is a distortion of historical facts. In the 20th century, some of the biggest communist parties of the world were created in the Islamic world like Iran and Indonesia. Even in 1960s and ‘70s Pakistan, communism was not an alien idea. It was the betrayal of Stalinists, in fact, that made people hijacked by the Islamic fundamentalists, and the left-reformists accelerated this process. Zulfikar Ali in Pakistan in fact started this Islamic counter revolution in Pakistan, banned alcohol and officially declared a specific sect as non-Muslim. After his assassination, a military general completed the process that was originated by this so-called left leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. But now the situation is quickly changing, but liberals and left-reformists are still mentally living in the dark ages, in that counter-revolutionary period. After the shutdown of sacred centres of the Muslim world in Saudi Arabia during this lockdown, corona crisis, it shattered the consciousness of the common people of the Muslim world.

State and imperialist funding of Islamist fundamentalists is no longer a secret. People are raising questions about every sacred thing, personality, and party, whereas in the past nobody could think about this situation. Social media is playing a key role, which is now state institutions and ruling parties are thinking about banning social media in Pakistan. It is impossible and even their campaign will raise the political consciousness even further and revolutionise the consciousness of youth in Pakistan. We are inching towards a revolutionary crisis in Pakistan. The rulers will once again use Islamic fundamentalists and all reactionary forces in society against revolutionary forces.

But if we deal this question scientifically and not a reactionary manner and present a scientific and political program to unite workers and students, I think that now these fundamentalists are not able to sabotage the revolutionary movement. Now it is our revolutionary duty to not repeat the mistakes of so-called ex-revolutionaries. To complete the revolution is our historical task.

James: Alex has already outlined the decline of religion in many countries. I want to elaborate on this with the example of Ireland. In the early twentieth century, the Irish war for independence was sabotaged by petit bourgeois leadership and a compromise made with British Imperialism to partition the island.

Religious sectarianism would be used to divide and rule the working class in the republic of Ireland – the Catholic Church was given enormous power and controlled all aspects of social life, politics, morality, and particularly the family. This was tied up with the intense oppression of women, who were supposed to stay at home, serve their husbands, and god. Contraception was illegal until 1980, and Priests used to go from home to home asking why there had been no children born that year. Homosexuality was illegal until 1993 and even divorce was illegal until 1996. Even today, the church runs 90% of primary schools and half of secondary schools. This despite the supposed separation between the church and state. Yet despite this position of power, the authority of the church has dramatically declined over the past few decades. In 1984, 90% of Irish Catholics went to mass each week. By 2018 this had fallen to about a third or lower. In some Dublin parishes, attendance is now as little as 2%.

In 2016, 10% of the population identified as atheist but that rises to 40% of 15-24-year olds. Now the church is in crisis. In 2017, only 7 men signed up to train as priests. The crisis was graphically revealed in two recent referenda. The first in 2015 – on whether to legalise same sex marriage with 62% voting yes, despite decades of propaganda from the church against homosexuality. Only one constituency voted no. This was one of the most conservative, rural areas. This was an enormous blow to the authority of the church. Then in 2018, over 66% voted to legalise abortion. To put this into perspective, the same percentage voted for the criminalisation of abortion only 35 years before. The situation has turned into its opposite. In some working-class areas of Dublin – the yes vote was over 75%, but most striking was the vote amongst the youth: 88% of 18-24-year olds voted yes. So discredited was the church, that they consciously avoided participation in the “no” campaign, as they knew to do so would simply fuel the yes vote.

So why has the church lost its authority? Well it was not due to the propaganda of people like the New Atheists but due to numerous material factors. One of these was the development of the working class in Ireland over the past decades. Ireland used to be a predominantly rural economy but over the past 30 years, the ranks of the working class have grown. People have moved to the cities, and ways of life have changed, including the entry of women into the workforce. Alongside this, the church has been exposed as completely rotten. This is a dialectical process. So powerful was the church, that the church establishment believed they could act with impunity, commit whatever crime, and get away with it. Priests could literally get away with murder, which was committed on a mass scale, paedophilia was rife throughout the church. Women who had children outside marriage had their babies taken away. The women were sent to institutions to perform slave labour and were subject to mental, physical, and sexual torture. The church ran orphanages for so called ‘delinquent children’, including those born out of wedlock. It is thought that about 4,000 children were killed in such institution, and others were raped, tortured, and starved. The state helped cover up such abuses. But in the past decades, the truth began to come out. Thus, the strength of the church contributed to its downfall.

In 2012, Savita Halappanavar died whilst suffering a miscarriage. When she begged for an abortion, which might have saved her life, she was told no by the doctors as Ireland is catholic country. When news of this got out, for many it was the straw that broke the camel's back. Thousands began to share their own horrific experiences. All of this is a symptom of a revolutionary process under the surface. Pillars of the establishment entering crisis cannot rule in the old way. It is linked to a general ferment in society which is the product of years of austerity, unemployment, worsening conditions. People identify the church with the establishment, which is increasingly hated. In the past the Church used its position to discredit any left-wing movement and whipped up anti-communist hysteria long before Joseph McCarthy in the USA. Now, it is unable to do anything like that to the same degree- it has lost its authority.

In all countries our task is to drive a wedge between workers and the religious establishment which preaches class compromise in the name of religion. To give confidence to workers to organise for their own interests, on their own terms, and take conscious control over their lives. Thank you, comrades.

Julien: Marxists have every interest in learning the lessons of all revolutionary history.

The revolutionary fight of early Christianity is no exception. There are many lessons that we can learn, many similarities with the struggle of Marxists today. But there are also some important differences.

Christianity arose in a period of decay of Roman society. The slave economy was in decline, the main state spending were the military and public buildings, and the Empire let its buildings go to pieces while trying to bolster its declining army. At the same time, the state took everything it could through taxes, labour services, tax in kind and more, so hostility towards this state grew massively. In this declining society the ruling class became completely degenerate. Their only function was to consume and enjoy endlessly, like parasites, the surpluses produced by the slaves. There was decay in all fields of life. Individuals felt no attachment to the community, or to the state that literally plundered them. Everyone was left alone in a scary, scary world in decline. Suicide was even a common occurrence at the time.

Doesn’t that whole picture sound familiar to the situation we have today under capitalism? Life was getting more and more unbearable and there didn’t seem to be a way out. It is in this context that Christianity took hold, promising and preparing life after death. The early Christians had a deep class hatred of the rich of Roman society. And they were communists, as Alex mentioned. They shared their goods and distributed them according to the needs of individuals within the community. [French author] Ernest Renan who said the following about early Christian communities, “do not compare them to the parish congregations of our day; they were rather like a local section of the International Working Men’s Association” (i.e. the 1st International founded by Karl Marx). It was a revolutionary struggle, to paraphrase Marx. Their firm belief on the imminent return of the Christ made them resist all persecution that came down on them. This was also the period of the rise of Caesarism, and Caesar dissolved all the clubs and associations that existed. He wanted absolute power, with atomized individuals submitted to it. Despite this, Christianity was able to survive. Why is this? Karl Kautsky wrote ‘Foundations of Christianity’, and says: “the only organizations that could exist under the Empire were those that had a broad social goal, a high ideal…only the most revolutionary or the most ideal of motives that could give an organization the strength to live.” Christianity had something to offer to the masses, and shows the power of ideas, and how ideas can unite people in a cause greater than themselves.

Some Christians today look towards this revolutionary past for inspiration. Liberation Theology in Latin America is an example of this. It developed in the 60s and 70s, among the lower ranks of the Catholic Church that were appalled by the poverty, oppression, and repression against the masses. Camilo Torres, Colombian priest who took up arms, Camilo Torres said "It is the duty of every Catholic to be a revolutionary... The Catholic who is not a revolutionary is living in mortal sin." We can be sure that in the future we will see other splits in religious communities along class lines. Many religious people will become the best socialist fighters. But ultimately, Christianity did degenerate. At the time of Rome there were no material conditions for communism. Instead of the Christians being able to transform society on communist lines, it was class society that transformed Christianity. Class divisions developed within it, Christianity became state religion, and has played a reactionary role ever since.

But it still remains a fascinating and inspiring movement, yet here are also important differences between then and now.

At that time, there was no class able to carry out a successful revolution to overthrow slave society. Instead you had a slow decline of Roman Empire over hundreds of years.

Christianity offered a way out outside of this world, in life after death, but what’s the situation today? Capitalism is in decline and we have barbarism around us, capitalism creates despair and atomizes people, which is very similar to the decline of Rome.

But today too, there is a movement that comes out of this barbarism, that can give us hope. That calls on us to build a paradise in this world, and that is the socialist movement. This time there is a class that can stop us from falling into barbarism, and that is the working class.

And yes, I’ll say as a Marxist, I do have faith as a Marxist – I have faith in the working class. It is not the same as religious faith, it’s based on a historical and materialist analysis that shows how the working class developed historically, and is in position to take control of the economy and abolish class society altogether this time. We have faith that history will prove us right. This Marxist analysis, derived from the real world, is our guide to action, and this faith in the workers will lead us to take active part in this fight to make victory happen. At the time of the Roman Empire only organizations with high ideals could survive. I would say the same about today. Fighting to reform capitalism is demoralizing and it leads to nowhere. Reformist organizations will be discredited, fall and decline. There has never been a better time to join the fight for a socialist world. The future is ours. Thank you.

Ricardo: Engels said the history of early Christianity offered curious points of contact with the modern labour movement. Christianity was born as the religion of slaves and the poor. In the end, Christianity would be co-opted and made an official religion and the church became an instrument of the domination of different exploiting classes. More than the designs of god, it is the acts of men in society that have marked the evolution and divisions of the church. At times, the class struggle has been openly expressed in different religious trends. The revolutionary and communist traditions of the origins of Christianity have emerged in more than one occasion. An example is Liberation Theology, which was a movement that had its hay day in the 70s and 80s. We must speak of liberation theologies in plural because there are different conceptions, but they all consider the core of their work in favour of the poor. In their theological conception, they recovered the revolutionary actions of Jesus Christ. They see the context of class struggle in which Christianity arose at first.

Christianity in general vindicates the poor and proposes charity. Liberation Theology also asks the causes of poverty. As Don Helder Camara, Brazilian bishop would say: “when I feed the poor, they say I am a saint, when I denounce the causes of poverty, they say I am a communist”. Liberation theologists explain the society in which we live, and thus, re-take some elements of Marxist analysis. To combat the cause of poverty, social transformation, and the fight for paradise on this earth were raised. In contexts of enormous class struggle, the followers of Liberation Theology not only justified revolution, but also joined it. As can be seen, Liberation Theology went further than a theological debate. Many priests committed themselves to the cause of peasants and workers. Liberation theology was also a mass movement because ecclesial based committees were created where thousands of religious workers fought for social equality and were organized and thus helping set up organizations of workers and peasants.

This movement would play an important role in the revolutionary struggle in the late 1970s and 1980s in Central America. They were influenced by class struggle and they themselves influenced class struggle, for example Ernesto Cardenal in Nicaragua and Oscar Romero in El Salvador. Many of these priests were oppressed along with the rest of the workers’ movement and many of these priests were assassinated by dictatorial governments. We must vindicate them as what they are, which are martyrs of the worker’s movement. Liberation Theology showed that the revolutionary traditions of the origins of Christianity are still alive. Its creation was intimately linked to an environment not only of poverty but of intense class struggle.

Although these movements reflected the spirit of the authentic Christian, they faced ecclesial repression from the beginning. A representative case is that of Leonardo Boff, the Brazilian theologist who would be silenced and forced to leave priesthood. But the most representative image was the one of the repressions of the visit of John Paul the second to Nicaragua, where he scolded Ernesto Cardenal in public. After this, there was an offensive supported by John Paul the second, but led by Ratzinger, to dismantle the Liberation Theology movement. Another element that explains the decline of this movement is state repression and the defeat of the Central American revolutionary processes. Also, the fall of the Soviet Union and its reflux played a major role in this. We believe that a believer that aspires a world of equality on this earth will find no better theoretical tool than the study of Marxism. The traditions of the Liberation Theology are kept alive, many priests are committed to the struggle for the landless and for the poor.

But we should not only attack the symptoms of poverty, but also its root which is the capitalist system. We must also recognize that there have been priests that have fallen for weird ideas such as post-modernism. We must enforce the same criticisms that we enforce on the rest of the labour movement. We are entering a new process of revolution and counter-revolution. What went previously unquestioned, today is questioned, including religion. The Catholic Church has entered crisis in many countries where they have lost thousands of believers and credibility through scandals like the one of paedophilia. Amid these splits and of the prospect of class struggle international we can see new cracks opening and revolutionary movements within the different religions. We must have a friendly attitude towards workers who believe and we must fight together with them against capitalism. Once socialism is built, we will have plenty of time to discuss our philosophical differences. Thank you.

Sum up

Alex: Well, I hope everybody agrees with me that that was a fantastic discussion.

And the intervenors really covered all aspects of this question. From poor countries like Pakistan and Mexico to so-called advanced capitalist countries like France and Ireland.

In the discussion we saw the hypocrisy of the religious establishment united with the state, who speak about peace and love when in fact they promote oppression and war.

But you saw the hypocrisy of the so-called liberal secularists who also promotes state oppression. We cannot fall into either of these two traps, and in fact these two sides lean upon each other. You see these sort of Islamophobic secularism debates actually serves to drive people towards Islamic fundamentalism. You see Islamic youth who, facing oppression and isolation, get driven into the arms of more militant Islamists.

This underlines a failure of the reformists and the labour movement. If the trade unions and the left parties were at the forefront of fighting against this oppression, if the workers movement stood on the basis of socialism, fighting oppression and fighting the poverty of capitalist society, then these oppressed youth were to flock to the labour movement, flocked to socialism. We have to fight for a militant socialist policy in order to win these oppressed youth to the struggle for socialism. I've seen various socialist organizations fall into one side or another. I've met older Iranian revolutionary emigres from the revolution, who have obviously been through the trauma of a failed revolution.

But many of them show a real hatred of religion that I can only imagine would be off-putting to Iranian workers. On the other side, I've seen left organisations capitulate to Islamic fundamentalism. There were Mullahs speaking on the platform during the anti-war demonstrations. The people who are supporting the oppression of Socialists in the Middle East. And this is a totally failed tactic, as these organizations didn't win anybody from the mosques but in fact lost people to the mosques.

Only the Marxist approach can really unite the working class. You see this with this fantastic school we're organizing. All sectors of the working class, genuine internationalism from every background, religious background, racial background.

Only Marxism can build that international unity. This is why we can expect great moves forward. Our ideas are being confirmed by events and we won't fall into this divide and conquer tactic. We’ll bring together the most self-sacrificing elements of the working class. Even from the revolutionaries of the past, even from these are the birth of Christianity and Islam and other religions which had revolutionary roots. Trotsky wrote some very beautiful words as part of his last testament, he called on the future generations to end all evil violence and oppression. Ours is the generation that is set to do that, this is what gives our life meaning, the fight for a socialist society, the fight for a paradise on earth, with the understanding we only have one life, so we're going to make it a damn good one. We’ll change the world, eradicate capitalism and then we can have some fun.