Communism and Religion--Part 2: Christianity (continued)

Being Good Without God

By Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #914, July 6, 1997

What is it that the various "liberation theology" people--and more generally those who attempt to use the Bible (or other religious scripture) as a basis for opposing poverty, oppression, injustice, and war--what is it that they have, as yet, failed to do? The essential problem is that they have failed to make the leap and rupture with the notion that "people cannot be good without god." They are clinging to the idea that the only way there can be a just society--a society without poverty and oppression and war--is if somehow there's some divine intervention.

You can understand the pull towards this way of thinking. I have to confess, (I'll use a religious term--I have to "confess"), that when the Gulf War broke out, I was watching "through the miracle of modern communication technology," this incessant, relentless aerial assault on Baghdad and other parts of Iraq. And I couldn't help thinking, `Man, it would be nice if Allah or Jah or Yahweh, or somebody, would get in the way of these imperialist airplanes and knock their shit down.' It would make things a lot easier.

But, the problem is--it's not going to happen. It didn't happen then and it's not going to happen. Things have to get resolved through very earthly struggle with very real material forces and their expression in the superstructure (including the air power of the imperialists). You can understand the pull to hope for divine intervention, but there ain't gonna be none, and we have to help the masses--through the ongoing process of making revolution in the objective world and making it in the subjective world of their thinking, and the dialectic back and forth between these two--we have to help them make this rupture.

This is not just a matter of ignorance vs. knowledge or of "wishful thinking" in the abstract. There is a question of class outlook here. Generally the class outlook of the people who want to cling to this religious outlook in the form of "liberation theology" is the viewpoint of the "in between" class, the petit bourgeoisie. These people, from a petit bourgeois standpoint, feel a genuine compassion for the poor and oppressed. And they have an abhorrence to war. But generally this tends to be opposition to all war--failing to draw a distinction between oppressor and oppressed with regard to war, the distinction between revolutionary war and counter-revolutionary war.

In general, they shrink from seeing the masses of poor and oppressed fully unleashed in revolutionary struggle and revolutionary war. And this is very important, it reflects in a concentrated way their petit bourgeois outlook. They shrink from all the upheaval and turmoil and, yes, destruction, that would be represented by that, and in fact they shrink to some degree from the thoroughgoing transformation of things and of people that is bound up with revolutionary struggle. Now, this is not absolutely the case. There have been people and forces among those who could be broadly described as in the camp of "liberation theology" who have supported, or at least not opposed, the masses rising up in revolutionary struggle, even revolutionary armed struggle. But the general tendency among "liberation theology" forces has been to oppose war and violence of any kind.

This kind of outlook comes out very sharply in the book The Soul of Politics by Jim Wallis, an evangelical Christian and social activist. The Morality essays* quote from the end of this book, where Wallis falls into what is, frankly, extremely nauseating condescension toward the masses of people, as reflected in his musings on the slaves in the southern U.S. He expresses what he feels, genuinely, but from his own class outlook. That's the point, it reflects a certain class outlook. He describes what he feels, very deeply, as he's sitting looking at a cemetery of former slaves. He talks about how he feels their presence in the cemetery, how he feels their dignity and their nobility. He reveals that he sees them as humble slaves who quietly, passively waited for salvation from god. As he sees it, their ability to do this amidst all the terrible oppression demonstrated the supposed redemptive role of suffering and the ultimate power of powerlessness!

As I wrote in the Morality essays, it is painful but it is more disgusting and infuriating to read this kind of thing. This is where this petit bourgeois outlook will lead, if it isn't ruptured with--to this kind of outlook toward the basic masses. It leaves out of the picture the heroic resistance of the slaves--the repeated and continual rebellion they carried out, in ways big and small, secret and open. As I said in answering this in the Morality essays, there is no redemptive role to suffering, as such. The only road of redemption--or, really, of emancipation--is when people rise up against their suffering, against their oppression. And what the oppressed masses needed then and need today is not "the ultimate power of powerlessness"--what they need is the ultimate power...of power. They need political power in order to be able to transform society and eliminate oppression and exploitation.

The Religious Impulse

The question of whether people and society can be good without god is closely related to another point that was spoken to in the Morality essays: the so-called universal religious impulse of human beings. The Morality essays quote Karen Armstrong, the author of a very interesting book called The History of God, on this question.

Armstrong presents a sweeping view of the world's religions (monotheistic religions in particular). She comes out of the Christian tradition, but she broadens this out to talk about some universal and unifying themes of the world's major monotheistic religions--Islam, Christianity, and Judaism--as well as discussing religion more generally. She makes the argument that there is sort of some universal need on the part of human beings for religious belief and expression. She finds this everywhere throughout the history of human society, even among early groupings of people, as well as with various forms of more settled and developed society. This must correspond, she argues (and others have argued this as well), to some inner, innate need of human beings to at least believe in God. If it doesn't constitute proof of the existence of God, it at least constitutes proof of the need of human beings to believe in the existence of God.

Engels spoke to this: he observed that it's true that there has been throughout history, even in the earliest groupings of people, a certain "consensus of the peoples" on religion--a certain general consensus that there is a god (or gods). He noted that early religious expressions tended to be somewhat "naturalist" religions, where there would be the tendency to invest various forces of nature that people confronted--the sun, wind, rain, thunder, and so on--to invest them with supernatural qualities, often to personify them and make them like a conscious being with supernatural qualities and powers. And, down through different ages and different forms of class-divided societies, there have been different forms of religion. Engels acknowledges this, but he relates it back to the point about how, in this era, humanity is poised to make, and has begun the struggle to make, a radical rupture with religion along with the radical rupture with the material and social conditions of which religion is an expression.

This gets back to Engels' profound point that at this stage of human historical development, the division of society into classes and the monopolization of economic life, and thereby of political power and culture and intellectual life, by a handful of people, is not only unnecessary but stands as a direct hindrance to the further development and emancipation of society and people. Engels relates this to religion: he makes the point that, in all previous human society, there was a basis for religious ideas. Or, to put it negatively, there was not yet a basis for a systematic comprehensive scientific outlook and methodology for understanding nature and society. But now humanity has reached precisely that era where there is the basis for such an outlook and methodology.

This gets back, once again, to the two radical ruptures. Engels is speaking to both of them: in the material sphere there is the basis for eliminating and uprooting all relations of exploitation, oppression, and class division; and, corresponding to this, in the ideological sphere, there is the basis for a leap beyond this "consensus of the peoples" on religion, beyond the need of the people to believe in religion. Not only has the belief in religion become unnecessary, but it also stands as a direct hindrance to the further emancipation and development of society and people.

In the Morality essays, I pointed out--in addressing the question "can we be good without god?"--that this has to be answered on two levels. On one level, the most basic level, we have to be good without god, because there is no god. So, if we are going to be good, then we are going to have to do it without god.

Furthermore "good" is not some transcendental universal question, but like everything else has a social basis and reflects definite social relations (class relations in class society). And this relates to everything that has been said about how, as Mao put it, in class society all ways of thinking have a definite class character. They reflect a particular age and a particular kind of society and a particular class position within that society. What is good for one class is not good for the opposing class. So "good" itself has a social content--a class content where society is divided into classes.

On another level, we have to be good without god in the sense that if we are going to achieve the good that is represented by the morality, the ideology, the outlook of the proletariat and the material interests that expresses--if we are going to be good in correspondence with that--we are going to have to be good without belief in god, because only by ultimately casting off that belief can we in fact achieve the goal of our class, namely, emancipation from all relations of exploitation and oppression, social antagonism and class division. Only by confronting reality as it actually is, only by taking up an all-around and consistently scientific approach to understanding, and to changing, reality--only by letting go of belief in non-existent supernatural beings and forces, a belief that distorts and obscures reality--only in this way can we carry out the thoroughgoing revolutionary transformation of society and the world.

Taking on the Powers-That-Be Without God

And there is a related point here that goes back to my humorous comments about sometimes wishing there were a Jah, or Allah, or whatever--there is another aspect in which many progressive people, including among the basic masses, view the question of "can we get by without god?" There is definitely the question among the masses--can we be good without god?--because a lot of masses have a sense that "we are caught up in a lot of bad shit" (and often they include themselves as being caught up in a lot of this "bad shit"). And, as a matter of fact, if we don't do our work correctly, the masses will say to us (or at least think): "You must be crazy! You think we are going to take over society and make it better. You must be a fool!"

Sometimes people think that we are talking about the masses as they are now, without any kind of radical ruptures and fundamental transformation in their outlook--and we would be fools to think that people as they are right now could rule and transform society to bring about the abolition of exploitation and oppression. The fact is that, as they are right now, the masses can't do this. But the more important and profound point is that they can learn to do it, they can develop the ability to do it, as they wage struggle to transform the world and transform themselves in the process. But there's another dimension to the question of whether we can get by without god--not only can we be good without god, but can we take on the powers-that-be without god?

A lot of people might say, "Well yeah, that's a good idea--revolution, overthrowing this system and getting rid of all its garbage--but we just can't do that by ourselves. They got "All That"--they got all that military power, and everything--how are we gonna deal with all that if we don't have Jah or Allah or somebody like that in our corner?" This is a big question of the masses--how can we deal with "All That" military power of the other side. And we have to answer that question forthrightly and thoroughly. We can't try to side-step that question or act like there's an easy answer, or it's a simple question. It's a complex, difficult contradiction, and it's going to require tremendous and wrenching effort all the way through to handle this contradiction--to develop the ability to launch and wage, and win, revolutionary war mobilizing and relying on the masses of oppressed people--we have to put that out very honestly to the masses too.

We know the basic answer, but forging that answer in practice, and in all of its different manifestations and expressions all the way through, is never gonna be easy. It's always gonna be a struggle involving continuous ruptures. But we can do it. That's the unity of opposites of that particular contradiction--it is complex, but there is a basic answer; it is difficult, but we can do it.

Now, an interesting point in relation to all this--and specifically in relation to the question of "can we get by without god," can we overturn the present world and make a better world--is what some people, including a number of Christian scholars, have characterized as the difference between Jesus and Paul in the Christian religion. The point of particular interest here--and I think there is something real and something of significance in this --is that at least some of these "liberation theology" people say that Jesus basically presents this way of living, this way of compassion, this way of sharing, this way of caring for the poor and oppressed, and that his emphasis is on actually making this a living thing --living this out in this world. By contrast, some say--and there is some truth to this actually--Paul came along and put into the Christian religion this whole insistence that the essence of this religion is salvation through the death--and, more than that, the resurrection--of Jesus.

According to Paul this is the whole point of what the Christian religion is about--it's about salvation in some other world by submitting ourselves to god. And Paul goes on to insist that it is necessary to submit to the powers-that-be in this world, because as he says at one point, the powers-that-be must be ordained by heaven or they couldn't be in power. In other words, we must accept the status quo in this world, since the point anyway is that only through believing in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and submitting ourselves to the god that made that possible, can humanity achieve salvation in the next world.

There is a certain truth to this distinction between Jesus and Paul as they come through in the Bible. But the problem with this is that it doesn't really accurately reflect the limitations of what Jesus did put forward and what Jesus actually says in an all-around sense. For example, if you look at the words that are directly attributed to Jesus in the Bible, despite all his talk about love and compassion and so on, Jesus does not call for abolishing poverty and oppression in this world but, as I pointed out in the pamphlet "Liberation Without Gods," the parables that Jesus uses, the terms in which he frames lessons about his theology, accept as given and do not question or condemn the prevailing oppressive and exploitative economic and social relations of his time and their expression in the political-ideological superstructure.

For example, to illustrate the relationship between god and people on earth, Jesus will use a parable about masters and slaves. Now obviously he's not saying that relation is bad, because he's using it to illustrate the relation between god and human beings. He's accepting this relation of masters and slaves among human beings as a given. He's certainly not saying it should be struggled against and overturned. So the best that can be said for Jesus and his teachings, and for the early Christians, insofar as they followed those teachings, is that they would leave the oppressive and exploitative relations among people intact, and within those confines they would attempt to give some relief to the poor and oppressed. They would not attempt to put forward a basis and a way to overthrow and uproot such relations.

And, without going into this in great detail, one thing that is worth noting is that, while Jesus proclaims these seemingly universal principles of love and compassion, when he gets around to it, he says: if you don't accept my way, you're gonna be in a lot of trouble, you will face a terrible fate, when the second coming comes--there's going to be a lot of gnashing of teeth, and tearing of flesh, because people are gonna be condemned for eternity if they don't accept my religion. This is not somebody else talking--this is Jesus talking. This has contributed to, and provided a theological basis for, a lot of horrendous things that have gone on with various religious wars--wars which have been fought, in the final analysis, in pursuit of interests grounded in the underlying material conditions and relations of society but which have taken the form of religious conflicts. It has even contributed to a lot of doctrinal disputes and, more than disputes, mutual slaughter between rival Christian sects.

All this is ultimately bound up with the Christian religion--all the ways in which this religion is the expression of relations of oppression and exploitation, wars of conquest and plunder, and so on. And if you aren't willing to make the rupture with this religion, then this, all this, is the package you're obliged to take with this religion, whether you want to or not.

The Struggle for
Dialectical Materialist Thinking

This relates to the point that I've been emphasizing from many different angles: the need to wage a militant ideological struggle for materialism--dialectical materialism--in opposition to religion and all other outlooks that are philosophically idealist (outlooks that treat ideas--the ideas of people and/or the supposed ideas of imagined supernatural beings--as the motive and decisive force in reality). And, at the same time, while there are progressive and radical religious forces with whom we should seek political and programmatic unity, even while we struggle ideologically with them, there are, on the other hand, straight-up reactionary religious expressions and forces that we're all too familiar with and that we have to wage uncompromising struggle against. These people need to be thoroughly, resolutely, and relentlessly combatted--I'm talking about the Christian Fascists in particular--Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition, and others like them.

Now, as matter of fact--setting aside, for the moment, the political program of the Christian Fascists, which is the heart of what has to be taken on, but in terms of their ideological and philosophical, and you might say psychological, component--there is some "overlap" between the religious beliefs and "rituals" of the Christian Fascists and those of other fundamentalist Christians, including even some who are among the ranks of the people and are not in the enemy camp. So, this indicates how complex the struggle around all this will be. It is tempting to just want to characterize and dismiss all this as what we might call "socialized, organized lunacy." And, in one aspect, this is exactly what this is. You listen to what these people say--on one level, it seems like pure lunacy, and the only reason those who carry on with this religious "ritual" aren't all instantly recognized as candidates for the asylum is because it's socialized and organized.

In other words, if anyone were going around saying: "Well, I was talking to Hugo the other day and I said, `Hugo, give me the strength to carry on to do what I have to do'; and `Hugo, tell me what I'm not doing right, help me to do right'"--if that person seemed to be talking to this "Hugo" but there was no "Hugo" there--you'd say, "take that fool away, he's crazy." But if you substitute the word "Lord" for "Hugo," then it's O.K. Now, some years ago there was this movie called "Harvey." It was about this character, played by Jimmy Stewart, who had this imaginary 7-foot rabbit, Harvey, that he talked to all the time. He would go around talking to this imaginary rabbit, which of course no one else could see. Actually, the people who made this movie may have been trying to make some points about creativity and the imagination, but the point I want to focus on here is that this character went around talking all the time to this 7-foot tall imaginary rabbit that he called Harvey, and his friends and family were worried about him because he was always talking to Harvey. But the thing he should have done is, he should have just called the imaginary rabbit "Jesus" instead of "Harvey" and everything would have been O.K.

Now I'm obviously engaging in a certain amount of ridicule here. It's worth doing this--this is part of what we should do--to ridicule this lunacy in this way. But we can't just do that. This religious fundamentalism represented by the Christian Fascists--but also by religious trends made up of people with whom we must strive for political unity--is a kind of socialized, organized lunacy, but exactly because it is socialized and organized, it's not regarded as lunacy.

And in a certain sense the people who are into this are not totally out of touch with reality, even though the god they're constantly talking to is non-existent, because reality is social as well as material. Reality is not just matter in motion in general but also more specifically includes the particular forms of matter in motion that are human beings and their social relations and interactions. And the "operative" social reality here (if you want to use that phrase) is that religious ideology in general--and especially a reactionary political program presented in religious form, as with the Christian Fascists--serves the ruling class and is promoted and reinforced by the ruling class in many different ways. That's also a very important aspect of this socialized and organized lunacy, of the social reality that it corresponds to. So we can't simply dismiss this as socialized and organized lunacy, because it has a very real and crucial role to play for the ruling class, and it must be taken on as such.

In part, what's involved here is the general need to wage a militant ideological struggle for materialism, including using ridicule against particularly the more outrageous and ridiculous expressions of religious idealism and especially the more reactionary ones. But, in addition to that, the reactionary stand and program of the Christian Fascists and similar types has to be taken on in its political and programmatic thrust, and part of this is penetrating through and laying bare, before all, the perverted, inside-out way in which this kind of thinking has played on very definite illusions and prejudices, particularly among the middle strata in society, and has appropriated and is appropriating certain relations and conceptions --such as "the right to life" and "the family"--and has made these into stalking horses for fascism. This has to be penetratingly laid bare and thoroughly criticized and dissected so that people can understand what the political purpose and the political intent and political thrust and program of all this is. At the same time, we do have to wage ideological struggle for militant, dialectical materialism in opposition to all idealist outlooks, including all kinds of religious viewpoints, even those associated with more progressive political programs and stands.

So these are some thoughts about taking on Christianity ideologically, in various aspects, and the kind of polemics we have to wage in this regard. Obviously, the kinds of polemics we should wage against the Christian Right--the Christian Fascists, as we have accurately labelled them--are different from the kind of polemics and ideological struggle we should wage with religious people who are playing a progressive role: with the latter there is a basis for unity-struggle-unity, whereas with the Christian Right, the Christian Fascists, there is only struggle-struggle-struggle to be waged. So, while we have to take on religious thinking of every kind, in the realm of ideology, and wage ideological struggle against the distorting and obscuring of reality that religion represents--at the same time, and this is very important, our methods have to be different with different kinds of people because we're dealing with different kinds of social forces and different kinds of contradictions.

In "Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People," Mao pointed out that there are two qualitatively different kinds of contradictions in society (including in socialist society): contradictions among the people; and contradictions between the people and the enemy. Contradictions among the people are handled by non-antagonistic means. Contradictions between the people and the enemy are handled by all-out antagonistic struggle. Some people who hold to religious views are friends, while others are enemies, and therefore in struggling over the same ideological questions (of religion and so on), the methods that are appropriate for the one are not appropriate for the other--this is another way of expressing Mao's point in "On Contradiction" that qualitatively different contradictions are resolved by qualitatively different means.


* "Preaching from a Pulpit of Bones: The Reality Beneath William Bennett's `Virtues,' Or We Need Morality, But Not Traditional Morality" and "Putting an End to `Sin' Or We Need Morality, But Not Traditional Morality (Part 2)." Excerpts from these essays--including a series on "What Is Communist Morality"--appeared in the RW from January 28, 1996 through May 12, 1996.

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