The Religious Impulse: "Skinning the Ox Twice"

by Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #1128, November 25, 2001, posted at  

The RW is currently running this series of excerpts from an unpublished work by RCP Chairman, Bob Avakian, “Great Objectives and Grand Strategy.” Although written over a year ago, this work—and these excerpts in particular—contain much that is very relevant to the current crisis and war. This is the 2nd in this series.

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.

They are trying to “skin the ox twice” by, on the one hand, promoting all of this unceasing and in many ways frenzied striving after immediate material gratification (and, as I put it previously, the ethos and model of the “entre-manure”) but then, at the same time, promoting religion as the answer to all the restless anxiety, insecurity and longings for something higher that is given rise to — or, in any case, is accentuated by — this “gold rush” frenzy.

One of the contradictions and ironies of all this is that in its concerted drive to promote religion, the ruling class is forced to recognize that broad numbers of people — especially those who went through, or at least have been significantly influenced by, the social, political, and ideological upheavals of “the ’60s”—have rejected religious institutions and much of the traditional religious precepts. And this is also true of a significant number of younger people who have become extremely cynical about institutions as well as leaders in politics and more generally in society. Not all religion that is attracting people these days is, by any means, traditional “mainstreet religion,” at least not in its “pure” form. There is the broader phenomenon of “spirituality,” particularly as it relates to the younger generations (the so-called “generation x” as well as younger people, in their late teens and early 20s, today).

Recently I came across a book whose title intrigued me — Virtual Faith — by Tom Beaudoin, whose religion of upbringing and core religious belief and institution is Roman Catholicism and whose purpose is to expound on the spirituality and religiosity of “generation X” (in which the author includes himself). But that is not all — as revealed in this book, Beaudoin is someone who looks for religion everywhere and insinuates religion into everything — and this book is out to promote, not just to observe, religion, particularly as it may appeal to “GenX,” or “Xers,” as he likes to refer to “his generation.”

Nevertheless, this book provides a number of observations that can lead to some important insights — even though often in the form of inverting Beaudoin’s observations and conclusions! It speaks to a number of the questions that are important to dig into in order to more fully understand religion’s specific role in U.S. society today, and its promotion by the ruling class, as well as spontaneous tendencies toward religiosity or spirituality, including the tension (or, actually, the unity of opposites) between established religious institutions and a more broad sense of spirituality. Beaudoin’s writing is a testament to how a sort of vague (or eclectic) spirituality, even one which involves suspicion of more established religion and religious institutions, can in fact lead back to the latter. The following selections from Virtual Faith give a sense of this:

“several of my friends suffered various degrees of depression or feelings of hopelessness during the 1980s as a result of aching apprehension about nuclear warfare and the likely forfeit of their future.” (p. 9)


“As one member of our generation lately put it, it is no longer any use ‘fantasizing about the revolution, which, if you studied the 1960s, you know will never come.’” (p.10)


“As one GenX friend observed, ‘My spirituality is drawn from Hinduism, Buddhism, Christian and Muslim mysticism, and Native American religions.’ With these words, she summarized dozens of my religious conversations with Xers.” (p. 25)


“Salvation means giving up human certitude.” (pp. 30, 87, 81, 122, emphasis in original)


“In our fragmented culture, ambiguity becomes the norm rather than the exception; experiencing the moment and determining its meaning overshadow any longer view.” (p. 46)

Then Beaudoin quotes a woman saying: “If you want to talk about church, I’m not very interested.” And he goes on to observe:

“This was perhaps the single most common sentence that I heard from Xers over the past several years in discussions and interviews. Most frequently, this statement was followed by something like, ‘I still think people can be spiritual or religious without going to churches or synagogues.’ Some even added the rhetorical question, ‘Do you think it really makes a difference to God?’....

“Those who practice their faith completely apart from institutions do not usually belong to a religious movement for very long; a religion’s stability seems to depend on its becoming institutionalized, which means that it evolves rules, authorities, and worship rituals....

“I suggest that Xers make a wholesale reconsideration of religious tradition.

“A reconsideration of tradition offers a check on GenX spirituality. It keeps those beliefs from becoming too subjective and merely personal.”

What all this actually points to is the need for people to make a radical rupture not only with established religious institutions and doctrines but with the whole worldview that promotes religion—with religious metaphysics, including “spirituality,” of all kinds.

It points to the profound need for people who are alienated from this heartless and degrading system of exploitation and oppression to make the leap to taking up the ideology of the revolutionary proletariat, the one force that can overthrow and abolish this exploitation and oppression. That can bring into being a world in which there is not only the necessity but the basis for people to consciously cooperate and to be motivated above all by the common good, instead of competing to turn everything into personal commodities and capital. That can inspire people with a vision of society, a world, in which it is no longer necessary to flee from the realm of material reality and the relations among people in order to find a meaning and purpose to life that is higher than the quest for individual gratification or “validation.” That can enable people to embrace and to engage what is known and what, at any given time, remains unknown. That can give ever-increasing scope to a scientific approach to and grasp of reality and at the same time to the creativity that challenges us to see reality in a different way or to envision and explore realms where human knowledge has not yet reached or not yet reached certainty. That can increasingly emancipate human beings and the human imagination from the restraints of material privation and from the shackles of superstition and dogma, of any kind.

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