Religion: Who Needs It?*


Epistemological Remarks

Questions about religion can be put into two categories.  In the first are those about the truth of the prominent assertions peculiar to many faiths, such as that one or more gods (as described by the believers) exist, that such beings hear myriad prayers, that they perform various miracles, and that some (or all) people have a life after death. When we examine such claims individually, to the extent that we can make clear sense of them, we see that they are false. In fact, there are really no questions of any significance that can be answered with more justifiable certainty.

In the second category are many fascinating, complex, and important issues that are quite difficult to resolve.  This does not mean that science and personal experience cannot be brought to bear upon them; we can form reasonable opinions and reject others as improbable, but here there are no certain or complete answers.

  • How do religious beliefs influence behavior?
  • How, and to what extent, does religious faith inspire artistic creation?
  • What leads people to hold religious beliefs that are so obviously and certainly false?

And hundreds of others.

Beliefs about Religion

Religion has been and remains of enormous importance in human affairs, influencing the nature of family life, community life, laws, education, war, and much more.  The dynamics of these interrelationships include struggles and potential struggles, and with them come strong opinions and beliefs, from  unconscious to loudly proclaimed, from unacknowledged presuppositions to overt propaganda, expressed in everyday conversation and in the mass media, as much in entertainment as in the news.  On the left, our analyses of politics and society should not leave religion unexamined; received ideas about religion should be viewed with scepticism, especially in the U.S. where there has been reluctance on the part of intellectuals of all political persuasions to criticize the mythology surrounding religion.1

Cuius regio eius religio                       

Casual observation reveals that religion is not an individual matter.  Divine inspiration is usually Roman Catholic in Spain, and Islamic in Algeria, to take a few examples; even in the U.S., where innumerable religions and denominations have flourished, there is a correlation between the beliefs of parents and children.  Religions live in people’s social activities and collective celebrations.  What religion is not an organized religion?

Inevitably, religion has been involved in every class struggle, and usually it has sided with the ruling class. (The Cromwellian revolution is perhaps the only important exception in modern European history.) Protestantism, by raising questions about religion and in facilitating the rise of capitalism, contributed to the demise of feudalism, but from Luther on, the principal Protestant sects sided with the powerful, whether aristocratic or bourgeois. More recently, the Catholic Church strongly supported Franco and Mussolini; in Germany, Hitler got on famously with the Protestant and Catholic churches alike (with only very few well-publicized exceptions). The other European fascist movements all had help from organized religion in their respective countries. Since the war, Christian Democratic parties have been parties of the right, and today in the Arab World and Iran, when Islam opposes one form of oppression, it is generally to fight for another. As in the past, Christian missionaries work in the interest of corporate penetration in Africa, Melanesia, the Amazon, and elsewhere.

Two Kinds of Atheism           

In the February, 1988 issue of Monthly Review,2 George Fish contrasted “the rational atheist” who sees “religious ideas as being solely the product of ignorance and superstition” with the Marxist atheist who sees them as “a product of the society in which they are spawned. . . . [T]he essence of Marx’s critique of religion [is that] religious people are religious not because they lack knowledge, but because they lack consciousness. They are not aware of the society around them and retreat blindly into the self to escape their pain” (pp.24-25). Fish, while not rejecting the rational arguments against religion, seems to see little value in them and appears to believe that Marxist atheists know why, “in this age of mass secular education, religious ideas” (such as preferring “Genesis” to The Origin of  Species) exist (p.24). Marx has indeed pointed us in the right direction, but that is about all; Freud shed more light on the attraction of religion than Marx. In any event, what is needed is more study that takes advantage of the insights of both thinkers.  Religion appeals to some who are quite well off, not only to the wretched of the earth. An explanation of how an intelligent, educated person comes to accept something as absurd as religion isn’t likely to interest such a person himself, while the arguments of the rational atheist, scorned by Fish, might be effective and would be more so if widely advocated.  Religion is much less pervasive in France and Germany than here. Is this because people there are less miserable? Isn’t it rather that they are more likely to encounter a critical view of religion in their families or among their friends?

The Opium of the People

Marx thought that religion provided solace in a heartless world, but he also insisted that criticism of religion was basic for a theoretical understanding of society and that attacking religion was an essential part of transforming society.  This doesn’t mean that we should confront religion head-on as an isolated phenomenon, but rather that we should articulate a critical view of religion that we can apply to the religious ingredients in future struggles.

What does it profit a man if he gains the whole next world and loses his soul?

The solace of religion may be more apparent than real.  Are believers in an afterlife less afraid of death?  It doesn’t seem so. (A few might even be tormented by thoughts of hell.) When a loved one dies, are the faithful less miserable than atheists? We may be permitted to doubt it. Prayer, like the rituals of an obsessional          neurotic or the drinking of an alcoholic, provides temporary and unsatisfactory relief. The imperfect satisfaction derived from religious observances comes in part from the fragility of most  belief. History is full of believers’ fear and intolerance of opposing ideas and of consequent attempts to silence nonbelievers and to censor heretical views.3 It must be an uncomfortable experience when doubts arise and a mindless existence if they don’t.

We know that to the extent that someone relies on prayer and divine intervention to improve things, he is wasting his time, but does man nonetheless have some inborn need for superstition?  The very fact that some people do not need religion, astrology, belief in curses and spells, or sundry psychic miracles would seem to settle the question, but there is the condescending view that while we atheists don’t need religion, the miserable masses are different — in their weakness they require illusions. Superstition’s long history is a poor argument that it fills a need. Most people have been oppressed throughout recorded history. Does it follow that they have a masochistic need to be oppressed? War has been as ubiquitous as religion. Does it satisfy a need? If so, there are needs better left unsatisfied. Religion perverts one’s views of responsibility, of history, of cosmology; it is unworthy of what humans are capable of; it distorts and constricts the soul.

Community and Spirituality           

While the religious right cultivates the worst in its congregations, churches also provide a place for their members to meet, form friendships, and help each other in various ways — through recreation, education, art and music, or in retreats where they are encouraged to re-evaluate their lives. “Spirituality” is used today to characterize feelings and attitudes attending altruism, love, and the nurturing of ideals opposed to those current in our commodified world, and churches promote their brand of spirtuality. Community and sprituality are essential for a good life, and the only community and spirituality many Americans find available are the versions offered by churches. The challenge is to imagine, and eventually to realize, such experiences as part of a full life unrelated to supernatural beliefs and ecclesiastic organizations, and here we should be open to what such organizations have already accomplished.

Base Communities and Solidarity Organizations

In Latin America there are religious base communities, whose leaders (generally out of favor in the Church hierarchy) often invoke liberation theology and where the poor and oppressed organize resistance to capitalist domination. Martyrs fall in these struggles. Among the Zapatistas are many courageous believers fighting for social justice in Mexico. Groups in solidarity with these struggles have come out of churches in the U.S.  Earlier, some black churches led in the fight for civil rights in this country. How do we fit in?

The Distant Radiant Future                       

An ongoing analysis of religion should be part of our basic philosophy, and our philosophy should be based on the truth as we see it.  In these days when the left is weak, it would be more foolish than ever to sacrifice principle and foster illusions in order to win short-term success. We must build a tradition of honesty, an enduring tradition, even as it evolves. The Soviet and Chinese distortions of history should have no counterparts in future quests for a socialist world.

We can honor the noble struggles and sacrifices of believers without agreeing with their ideas of what motivates them.

We can work with believers and be as clear about our rejection of the supernatural as they are about accepting it.

We can hope for a future society with religious freedom, where believers will have the means to meet and worship and to supplement public education with religious instruction, but where no religious organization will control great wealth.  And with Marx, we may imagine that in a socialist society there would be little inclination to embrace superstition.


*Each year, Bay Area Friends of Monthly Review invites its members to write a short essay on a given topic.  This was the 1998 topic.

1 Michael Parenti and Gore Vidal are notable exceptions.

2 “Two Kinds of Atheism,” pp. 23-33.

3 Surely an important impetus to antisemitism in Europe was the unsettling realization that Jews had studied many of the same sacred texts as Christians and come to quite different conclusions. 

Richard Wiebe has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of California (Berkeley). He has read most of the articles in Monthly Review since 1960.