Why Do People Turn to Religion, When There Really Is No God?

Excerpts from Writings by RCP Chairman Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #1237, April 25, 2004, posted at http://rwor.org

In light of the recent public stir over the movie "The Passion of the Christ" and the general promotion of religious fundamentalism in society, a newly formed revolutionary writers collective in Chicago studied the writings of RCP Chairman Bob Avakian on religion and selected excerpts for publication in the RW. The following passages on the theme of the "impulse to religion" were selected from: "Liberation Without Gods"; "Preaching from a Pulpit of Bones: We Need Morality but Not Traditional Morality"; "Great Objectives and Grand Strategy," "On War and Revolution, On Being a Revolutionary and Changing the World: Bob Avakian Speaks Out, Interviewed by Carl Dix.

From "The Religious Impulse: `Skinning the Ox Twice' " Great Objectives and Grand Strategy

It is very important to grasp deeply that the apparent "heightened religiosity" among various sectors of the people in the U.S., while obviously related to and in many ways fed by the ruling class crusade to promote religion, is not simply reducible to that crusade as such. There is also the "religious impulse" as a more spontaneously felt need among broad sections of the population and as a reaction to not only their own situation, in the most narrow sense, but also to major changes and upheavals in the world and the U.S. itself--including the instability, uncertainty, and anxiety that are produced by an economy for which "turbo capitalism" (the title of a book by "conservative" Edward Luttwak) is perhaps an apt metaphor. Major political events, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union and its bloc--and the ideological offensive declaring this the defeat, demise, death of communism--have also played a significant part in promoting this "religious impulse." And, of course, the ruling class, seeking to "skin the ox twice" (to get a benefit and then a benefit on top of that benefit) ideologically and politically, promotes religion, of various kinds, as the answer--to the very restlessness, anxiety, insecurity, and longings for something larger and higher than the unceasing quest for immediate material gratification, which the workings of the capitalist-imperialist system are producing in a widespread and intense way these days.

From Bob Avakian Speaks Out, Interviewed by Carl Dix: On War and Revolution, On Being a Revolutionary and Changing the World. "Part 14: Religion and Religious Fundamentalism- -What's Going on with This?"

BA: [responding to a question by Carl Dix on how the influence of religion among Black people declined in the revolutionary upsurges of the 1960s--that when revolution has its day, people see things another way]

Yeah, `cause, in fact, if you just get right down with it, I think that there's a certain way in which this response to religion (or turning toward religion, or however you want to say it) if not entirely consciously, nevertheless in a significant way, is related to people feeling defeated in some ways, in terms of actually trying to stand up and change the conditions of oppression and get this oppression off their back, to put it simply. I have a feeling that it has a certain amount to do with people feeling that, as I said, they've been beaten back and they're feeling somewhat defeated--and it's the other side of what you're saying about when revolution has its day, people see things another way. The opposite of that is that when there are temporary setbacks, people lose "faith" in the ability of the masses of people and their own ability to understand and change the world. And when you add to that all the craziness that seems to be going on in society--and really...this seems to me to drive people to feeling that this is way beyond their own ability to understand, let alone to do anything about--and when you add that to the way in which the masses of people are not given a basic education and are not given the tools and basis to understand even basic scientific principles to a large degree--things like evolution. So instead, through a lot of institutions like the church, a lot of metaphysical, idealist, mystical notions are instilled in them--things that are actually contradicted by reality, by what's understood about reality, either historically or by science. I mean, there's lots of things in the Bible that are historically inaccurate, and are contradicted by basic science--you know, when the earth was created in relation to the stars, for example--the stars existed long before the earth came into existence, things like this.

But people don't know these basic facts, they're not given the educational basis or means to understand these things, so when you feel so much craziness you turn back to tradition.

.If you believe the world is run by mythical nonexistent forces and powers--or one all-knowing, all-seeing, all- powerful god--then obviously you're not gonna really grasp the world the way it is, you're not going to really be able to fully transform it. So, there's a contradiction there between people being motivated in some ways to fight against oppression even by their religious ideas, at least up to a point, and then ultimately however running up against their own belief that in the final analysis this is beyond human reckoning and beyond human ability to change.

It seems to me that this is one of the contradictions, although obviously we're not going to solve this completely in the short run. We're not going to...people are only going to give up religion--and they do have to give it up, you can't force them to not believe in it--they're only going to give it up when the things that drive them toward religion and the things that make them believe in religion are uprooted and no longer exist: the oppression and also the ways in which people are misinformed and miseducated about the way the world is--the universe is, society is--what are the driving forces and things like that.

But it seems like with all that one of the big dangers with this fundamentalist thing is that politically it seems like the ruling class is--while we're saying that we don't want the dividing line to be on the basis of whether you're religious or not, but whether you side with the people in their fight against oppression, it seems to me a certain effort on the part of the ruling class in promoting this religious fundamentalism is to try to make a dividing line in other ways, to rally people around "the most important thing is religion," and in particular these fundamentalist views of religion, and "you should unite with or not unite with, or have to do with or not have to do with, or oppose or not oppose people, on the basis of whether or not they `believe in the lord'" (or believe in Allah in the case of Islam, which is a whole other phenomenon--I don't know how much we can talk about it, but that's a growing phenomenon, for example among Black people, it's really grown in the last couple of decades where a number of people have turned even from Christianity to Islam--but basically you can see it's the same, obviously it doesn't fall into the category of Christian fundamentalism, but it is the same ultimate ideological and philosophical phenomenon).

All this is part of the terrain that we have to deal with, it seems to me. I do think it's a political danger here with this fundamentalist movement, not only that it poses an organized fascist presence, but also that it's an attempt to win, even--put it this way, it's an attempt even to win the oppressed to act against their own interests on the basis of religious fundamentalism. I think that's a phenomenon that we have to be aware of and try to figure out how to deal with.

From the Introduction to Liberation Without Gods

Religious conviction and religious doctrine have contradictory effects in today's world. Some people are motivated by their religious beliefs to challenge oppressive social systems and oppressive relations in the world. At the same time, organized religion and much of religious doctrine is used to reinforce the oppression of the masses of people, to preach submission before the established authorities and their oppressive rule: As Lenin said, every reactionary order is in need of two functions, the hangman and the priest, and they go hand in hand and complement each other.

So what stand should we take toward religion and religious believers of various kinds? We must seek unity, on whatever levels unity can be built, with all those whose religious conviction moves them to take a stand with the oppressed against the oppressors. On the other hand, we must firmly oppose those whose religious conviction moves them to side with the oppressors and act as apologists and enforcers of the reactionary order and its crimes. And we must reject religious doctrine--all religious doctrine--as such, for the basic reason that it is untrue. That is, we must reject its claim to be divinely revealed truth, for there is no such thing. Further, it is necessary and crucial to wage an ideological struggle, in many different forms, against religious ideas and notions, because these ideas and notions will keep us from going as far as we need to go--to the complete liberation of the masses of people, and ultimately humanity itself, all over the world.

From "Putting an End to `Sin'," Preaching From a Pulpit of Bones

The yearning for a transcendental, universal morality is acutely felt in contemporary society. To a large degree, this is because of the fact that the world is undergoing a major transition, which is often accompanied by ideological crisis.

In the U.S. there is a widespread feeling that there is a "moral drift" and "moral decay," and this is linked with certain important aspects of this transition, including the increasing participation of women, from broad strata, in the work force and the impact of this on traditional male-female and family relations, as well as significant developments in terms of immigration to the U.S. and the effect of this on the demographics of U.S. society, along with the displacement of large numbers of unskilled workers, particularly among Black people and others in the inner cities, and the threat of such displacement among broader numbers of people. All this has interacted with the phenomenon of "unresolved questions," particularly in the sphere of culture and ideology, including morality, which arose in relation to "the '60s" and have been carried forward and have remained unresolved since that time.

It must be recognized that the "pull" of "traditional morality"--presenting itself as transcendental morality and feeding off the force of habit and convention--has increased among a number of strata in more or less direct relation to the actual defeats suffered by communist revolution over the past several decades, the widely proclaimed "death of communism" in recent times, and the ideological confusion created and spread in relation to all this.

On the other hand, not only are changes in the U.S. and the world economy undermining important aspects of the material basis of "traditional morality," but even the "death of communism" and the "end of the cold war," which has been accompanied by a "streamlining" of the U.S. military, has added to the sense of "uneasiness" and "uncertainty" in the U.S. and has had an important aspect of splintering or "diffusing" the "cohesiveness" of the dominant ideological conventions. This has had a contradictory effect in relation to "traditional morality"--in some aspects actually reinforcing, while in other aspects undermining, it.

In the U.S. today, this has resulted in acutely felt conflicts involving "traditional morality," revolving around the fact that the ruling class has the need to aggressively reassert this "traditional morality," even though it is more and more sharply in conflict with the direction society needs to take in order to resolve its deeply rooted problems. On the other hand, the basis has not yet emerged for a fundamentally different morality to defeat and supersede this "traditional morality" in society as a whole. This contradiction will remain, and will continue to be acutely felt for some time, unless it is resolved either in a thoroughly reactionary direction, through some kind of fascistic imposition of "traditional morality" from the top in an all-encompassing sense, or in a really and fully revolutionary direction, through an overturning coming from the bottom and carrying with it broad layers of society to topple the existing order and undertake the creation of a radically new society with a radically different morality. Thus the role of communist morality and the battle between this morality and "traditional morality," in whatever expression, is and will continue to be a crucial question, a crucial arena of confrontation and struggle. (p. 68-69)

From "Putting an End to `Sin'," Preaching From a Pulpit of Bones

In The History of God (a survey of the world's major monotheistic religions--Christianity, Judaism, and Islam--and their historical development), Karen Armstrong develops the familiar argument that evidence of religion can be found throughout human history, from the earliest human societies (this includes communal societies that are not marked by the division into classes and by an oppressive division of labor between women and men), and this must indicate some kind of universal religious impulse among human beings. Armstrong puts it this way: "My study of the history of religion has revealed that human beings are spiritual animals. Indeed, there is a case for arguing that Homo sapiens is also Homo religiosus ." ("Introduction," p.xix)

At the same time, Armstrong recognizes that religion has, and cannot help having, a pragmatic quality: "All religions change and develop. If they do not, they will become obsolete." (p.84) Armstrong attempts to resolve this contradiction--that religion is supposed to represent the word of a god (or gods) that are beyond human existence and in no way dependent on human social relations and conventions, yet all religion must change and develop or become obsolete--by positing some ineffable essence of god which human religious expressions can only approach but never fully embrace or understand.

But we have seen not only that, throughout history and in today's world, different social groupings, different classes, have different views of what is "natural" and what constitutes "the nature" of human beings (there being radical differences in how this is seen by slavemasters on the one hand and slaves on the other, for example) but that people with different class outlooks interpret the very same religious scriptures and doctrines in very different ways (as "evangelical Christian" Jim Wallis on the one hand and "evangelical Christian" Pat Robertson on the other hand are testament to). Beyond that, and even more fundamentally, we can turn once again to Engels, who not only showed that, for the first time in history, humanity has now reached the point where the division of society into classes is completely unnecessary and is a definite hindrance to the all-around development of society and people, but also showed how religious belief, in all forms, has similarly become a hindrance to that development.

Engels spoke to how, up to this point in humanity's development, there has been a "general consensus" among peoples everywhere on the earth that supernatural forces and gods (or One God) existed. But Engels noted this is not proof of either the actual existence of god(s) or of some "inner need" of human beings to believe in god. Rather, it is a manifestation of the fact that, until the present age, human beings and human society had not reached the point where it was possible to develop a viewpoint and methodology that provides a systematic and comprehensive scientific approach to understanding the motive forces in nature and society (and in people). But, Engels emphasized, that point has now been reached --that viewpoint and methodology has been developed, and it continues to be developed. That viewpoint and methodology is precisely Marxist communism. (p. 83-84)

From the Conclusion of Liberation Without Gods

Why is it that throughout history, up to this day, religion has persisted, even when major props of religion are shown to be wrong and false--such as the Christian (and Islamic) accounts of "the creation," along with the other kinds of errors and misstatements of fact pointed to throughout this article? This, as well, is for two basic reasons:

1. Reactionary political authorities have recognized the importance of religion in maintaining their oppressive order, and they have utilized the means at their disposal--including political power and control of the means of information--to foster and propagate religion in one form or another.

2. In a society in which social relations are antagonistic, a "religious impulse" is spontaneously generated. What is this "religious impulse"? The seeking after some supernatural help in dealing with seemingly overwhelming forces. The yearning for solace in times of despair, help in desperate times, solidity in times of insecurity and instability. The vague feeling of "spiritual emptiness" that comes with acquiring material wealth in a parasite-like fashion. The searching for consolation in conditions of oppression or help in fighting such conditions--help beyond human limitations. The thirsting for spiritual sustenance in a world that seems so cold. The felt need for some "other-worldly" outlet for frustration, or a momentary transformation of anguish into joy, however short-lived. This "religious impulse" can never be fully put aside by humanity as a whole-- recognized for what it is and voluntarily cast aside as no longer necessary, as a hindrance rather than a help--until human society no longer moves through antagonistic social relationships; until exploitation and oppression have been eliminated; until human social organization and social relations no longer obscure the reality of the forces that operate in nature and society and no longer obstruct human beings from grasping and acting upon the real motive forces in nature and society.

But to advance human society to that point, the exploited and oppressed--who represent the potential power to revolutionize society--must come to grips with the world and with human existence as they really, fundamentally are-- and as they can really, fundamentally be changed. Especially the revolutionary-minded among the masses must make the leap to casting off the mental shackle of religion and take up the liberating ideology of revolutionary communism. They must take up and wield the weapon of Marxist materialism.

This materialism has nothing to do with the restless hunger for ever more material wealth and the frantic, ruthless battle to acquire it. That is the way of the exploiters and their apologists--the capitalist system most of all. Marxist materialism is founded in the basic truth that all existence is material--that everything consists of matter in motion--and that there is no existence other than real, material existence.

Marxist materialism does not deny the importance of ideas (including feelings, emotions, etc.) and their role in influencing people and society. Quite the contrary. Marxist materialism recognizes that ideas play a tremendously important role, including in the revolutionary transformation of society and of people. It recognizes the dialectical relationship --the mutual influence and back-and-forth interplay--between ideas and the material reality that gives rise to these ideas. It recognizes that all ideas have their ultimate origin in the material reality of nature and society (and that the human brain itself and its thinking process consists of matter in motion--chemical and electrical processes and changes, etc.). Ideas are correct to the extent that they correctly reflect material reality--in its process of motion and change. Marxist materialism--dialectical materialism--attaches most importance to those ideas which most correctly reflect reality, and which therefore assist and accelerate the transformation of nature and society--above all revolutionary transformation.

It is thus that Marxist materialism opposes itself to all forms of idealism and metaphysics --all notions of reality independent of and beyond material reality; all pretensions that ideas (or spirit) are the creating and motive force in the universe, that ideas do not have their basis in reality but on the contrary shape reality as they will; all sense of an unchangeable order or of beings that are whole, complete, perfect, without contradiction; all insistence that things are ordained to be the way they are and they never can and never will change. In opposition to all such notions, including religious doctrine and belief, Marxist materialism is in fact the guide to the revolutionary transformation of society and of nature in the most thoroughgoing way: to bring about the complete elimination of exploitation, oppression, class division, and social antagonism--to emancipate humanity from all that and to continue advancing human society.

These excerpts come from the following works by Chairman Avakian.

Great Objectives and Grand Strategy is an unpublished work from which excerpts appeared in the RW/OR from November 2001 through March 2002. "The Religious Impulse: `Skinning the Ox Twice'" appeared in issue #1128 (November 25, 2001) and is posted on the web at rwor.org.

Bob Avakian Speaks Out, Interviewed by Carl Dix: On War and Revolution, On Being a Revolutionary and Changing the World appeared in the RW/OR from June 2002 through November 2002. Part 14, "Religion, and Religious Fundamentalism--What's Going on with This?" appeared in issue 1173 (November 3, 2002) and is posted on the web at rwor.org and available on CD from RCP Publications.

Liberation Without Gods is available in pamphlet form from RCP Publications.

Preaching from a Pulpit of Bones (New York: Banner Press, 1999). Excerpts from the book appeared in the RW/OR from September 1998 through March 1999 and are available on the web at rwor.org.