Part 14: Religion, and Religious Fundamentalism-- What's Going on with This?

Bob Avakian Speaks Out, Interviewed by Carl Dix

On War and Revolution, On Being a Revolutionary and Changing the World

Revolutionary Worker #1173, November 3, 2002, posted at

The Revolutionary Worker is very excited to present to our readers this interview and exchange between Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, and Carl Dix, national spokesperson of the RCP.

In coming weeks, the many different subjects covered in this important and wide-ranging interview will be made available. This week is Part 14. In the future, the complete interview will also be published and made available online.

The transcript has been slightly edited for publication.


In heavy times like these, the people require extraordinary things to help prepare them for the challenges we face. What follows is truly extraordinary, something that will help arm those who want to take on the U.S. rulers' juggernaut of war and repression with the kind of understanding they need to deal with these times -- the immediate challenges in front of us and a whole lot more involved in changing the world. The Revolutionary Worker is publishing an important interview with Bob Avakian, the leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA.

I had the honor of doing this interview with him in early 2002. Going into it, I knew there were burning questions many people would've wanted to put to him if they had the chance. They had been putting those kinds of questions to me when I went out there around the Party's Draft Programme or got down with people around the "war without limits" the U.S. imperialist ruling class has unleashed on the world. I was going to have the responsibility, and the opportunity, to put these questions to him for them.

Doing this was intense. It was hard, and it was fun. I hadn't had a chance to get into it with Bob Avakian like this for quite a while. He was the same "fired man" (to borrow a term from Peter Tosh) who had provided crucial leadership for the revolutionary movement at key junctures so many times in the past. He was right on top of what was going down in the U.S. and around the world. And he had the same boundless enthusiasm to dig into world historic questions concerning the process of proletarian revolution. We spent several days doing the interview, getting into everything from the current situation to the role of religion to what sustains him as a veteran revolutionary leader. And then, when we finished our work, we went deep into the night talking about basketball, movies and more.

I hope those who read this interview get as much out of it, and enjoy it as much, as I did in the process of doing it.

Carl Dix


Bob Avakian: So, there's a question I want to raise. Let me throw this question to you: One of the things that seems very apparent to me, in looking at what's happening in U.S. society, is the question of religion--the influence of various organized religious forces, especially fundamentalist reactionaries (as we call them, Christian Fascists) is a very clear and major phenomenon in terms of, not just society in general, but the ruling class politics, people highly placed and connected, who are part of this Christian Fascist thing, whether you're talking about Pat Robertson or Ashcroft or whatever. But it also seems to me that more broadly than that there seems to be a phenomenon--obviously this is being encouraged by not only these religious fundamentalist ruling-class-connected movements but also by the ruling class as a whole, but there seems to be a phenomenon of a mass turning toward religion--sometimes not the traditional religion but more in the form of spirituality, but a lot of it does seem to be, in the traditional religious forms, even fundamentalist ones. And I noticed this especially--or one thing stands out to me especially, this is true also among the basic oppressed masses a lot--every time you turn around there seems to be somebody, some sort of prominent Black person, or an artist, a hip hopper, an athlete, somebody thanking god and wearing all these religious ornaments and crosses and all the rest of it, and talking about religion, and everything. It seems to be a big thing in sports in the U.S., for example.

I've been studying this and our Party has been paying attention to it, but this really has been a striking feature to me of the situation in the U.S. and one that's been a growing phenomenon in the last number of years, and so how do you see that, what the deal is with this? It's not that we're going to draw the dividing line in terms of whom we can unite with based on whether people are religious or not, there are many people who hold religious beliefs who are important allies in the struggle against oppression on many different fronts and even in an overall sense. But at the same time, in terms of ideologically, philosophically, in terms of people's world view, this seems to me to be a big problem and frankly a big obstacle. And I wonder, where do you see this coming from, what's given rise to this and why is this happening, and what challenges does it pose for us?

Carl Dix: Oh, you going to be asking me questions now, you going to be putting the script on me [BA laughs]. OK, well this is something that I've been observing for a while myself, and like you say it's something that's more of a phenomenon now, you see a lot more of it now. It's not brand new--and part of the reason I've been watching it for a while is that a while ago people would raise some things in ways that were really particularly irritating. I just remember I was in an industrial accident a number of years ago when I worked at a steel mill and I nearly died. And all these people would come to visit me in the hospital afterward. I was glad people were coming to visit me, but there was a certain strain of thought that some people would raise about how god was really with you that day--you survived. And I had to tell some of them, you know, well god must have been asleep at the switch there because he should have stopped me from getting hurt in the first place. And then while we're at it, what about this case where this kid was run over by a car the other day, did god have a beef with them? Was that what that was about? No, but that was the kind of thinking that people would raise.

But if that bothered me then, just look at the way that it's really out there much more today. I mean, when you watch a sporting event or if you watch something like the Grammy's or something like that, you just sit there and you get person after person coming up, thanking god for being with them and attributing in some way this award that they won to god--which does pose the question of whether god just had it in for the other people who didn't get it. But I think that there are a few things that tie into that, and one is the point you raised earlier about the ABM campaign that the imperialists are on--and not the anti-ballistic missile one, but the anything but materialism one--and in fact this kind of thinking is being much more promoted by the rulers. And it plays a certain kind of role in terms of explaining to the oppressed why they are where they are and what they should look to in terms of dealing with that, and the one place that they shouldn't look is in terms of actually struggling to deal with that oppression but they should look at the solution in terms of strengthening and tightening up that relationship to god--in some way that's going to deal with the situation that you're in.

And the value of that to an oppressor is kind of obvious, because if you're looking at the solution in terms of tightening up your relationship to god, or something like that, then that's not gonna be the thing that unleashes you to take it up here, right now, and to struggle over it. And, as you said, we can unite with people who are religious and in fact we can and do unite with people who feel motivated by their religious principles to struggle against injustice--but there is a question about how do we need to approach this to really understand it, and this viewpoint that views things in terms of god being a motive force for things that are going on in society is one that is not going to take people to get at and understand what's the source of these problems that we are up against and what we need to do to deal with them.

BA: Well, following up on that, some questions that occurred to me are to what degree for example, especially among the oppressed...I think, some of the more privileged strata among the middle classes--their religion is as much a social thing as anything else, it's part of what you're supposed to be doing if you're going to be respectable and so on, and also has to do with their position in their firm, you know all those kind of questions--but I think even for them it's more than that. And I've been doing a lot of studying of this, and reading not just things where people have studied the phenomenon or written about it but also things written by people who have been into this religious thing and maybe have gotten out of it-- to try to understand what motivates people, what draws them into it, what's the driving thing that gets people off into this. And I still would like to understand more to what degree is it just tradition--you know, this is traditionally what people are taught, they're "raised up in the church," and that's kind of the way it is and they've never really thought about things differently or seen the world in a different light, and they're not really given the basis for understanding the way the world works, the way the universe works, the way reality is, to put it that way.

And also there's another thing that occurs to me: to what degree people are responding to the feeling of all the madness and uncertainty of everything that society and the world seem to be going through, and every time you turn around there's some other kind of crazy thing happening, or there's something set loose that people can't have any basis for understanding that seems to be horrific, like kids shooting other kids in school, even in these suburban areas, or kids planning to blow up their school, all this kind of wild stuff that people seem to be encountering, craziness every time they turn around. And also it seems like there's this feeling from what I can gather--but I'd like to understand this more deeply--of people reaching out for sort of absolutes, for something certain, `cause there seems to be so much uncertainty in people's lives: economically, their jobs are not as secure, you may make more money but there's a lot more volatility, a lot less stability in your job, and they can dump you just as fast--I mean look at the Enron thing, it's a perfect example of all these people that got washed out, who had all their money tied up in stock options or whatever, and that's not a unique or isolated case.

So I can see some of these things where people are looking for absolutes and they reach for tradition, for absolutes. And there's also the line promoted by the Christian Fascists that what's wrong today is that everything is relativism and nobody knows anymore what's right and wrong. Of course, their notion of right and wrong is completely reactionary, and completely against the interests of the people, and they're the same kind of people that 30 or 40 years ago would have told us that segregation was right, and that people who opposed it were evil, devil-inspired communists. So their sense of right and wrong is obviously reactionary and abominable, but nevertheless they seem to draw some people who are looking for certainty and absolutes.

And then I wonder, among the oppressed where you see so much shit that the youth have been into, like in the ghettos and barrios, and the way for example that drugs have devastated a lot of communities, so even a phenomenon like kids growing up who used to be able to count on one thing, their mother, if they couldn't count on anything else--and that was a whole thing, you don't say anything about anybody's mother--but now when they get into drugs, when the crack hits, and other drugs, even that seems to be breaking down, the mothers are not there for their kids in the same way. I mean not all of them, obviously, but the ones who are getting into drugs and stuff, are not the certainty for their kids that they were before. And it seems that a lot of people looking at all this, and seeing the youth killing each other--all the gang- banging and all the rest of that kind of stuff--I wonder to what degree and in what way that is driving a lot of people toward religion. In the whole `60s thing a lot of people were filled with a lot of hope, and I think that when people are filled with a lot of hope that things can actually change here in the real world, then they don't feel so much driven toward religion, they feel a little more that they can break free from it, or do without it. But it seems that in recent times--I wonder if a lot of these kind of things going on are part of what's driving people toward religion?

CD: I think that's a good point that you're bringing out, and the angle that you're coming at this from is very important to get next to, because it was the case that--you look at things in the 1960s at one point, and actually the church played a very important role at the beginning in terms of initiating people into struggle. And some of these guys continue to act as if that's bringing people forward, but there also came a time later on in the '60s when that was no longer the case and the forefront of struggle and the forces that were in it were no longer the religious forces--there were still religious forces who were uniting with the struggle but out in the forefront were the forces like the BPP, SNCC, H. Rap Brown, people like that, and it was no longer a question of the church being at the forefront. But it was also tied to people having some hope, by the struggle that was going down and the advances that were being made in that, that we could shake off some of this stuff. And I do think that the conditions that you were talking about are some things that have kind of raised to people: Where can they look to and where can they go for the hope in this? And I guess that brings up something that we've said for quite a long time--that when the revolution has its day, people can see things in a different way. This is another front in which that has application, I think.

BA: 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. I feel also--I think this is true in the history of many sections of the masses and oppressed peoples around the world but including say Black people in the U.S., the church has always played a particular and contradictory role going all the way back to slavery. It was an institution that was allowed and in a certain sense promoted by the slave masters, and then, on the other hand, because people were oppressed they tried to turn religion--at least in some aspects there was an attempt to turn religion into a basis or a means for waging the struggle against slavery and against oppression. There were certain doctrines of the Christian religion that were reinterpreted in certain ways in the Black church to identify with Moses, for example, and the people getting free from slavery and things like that. But, on the other hand, even while that's been true, there's a reason why that was one institution that was allowed and promoted, because it does at the same time, even with this attempt to forge this--to grasp ahold of certain things and forge them into a sense of getting free and fighting oppression--even where that happens it's still the case that this promotes a view that there are forces controlling the world (the universe, existence, being, however you want to look at it) that are beyond human--not only beyond the ability of human beings to affect, but to even understand fully. That ultimately, like I said earlier, "it's all in god's hands."

I think that this is the contradictory nature of it, but philosophically, and ideologically, even where people may be motivated by religious beliefs to fight oppression, there still comes a point where you say that you have to rely on god for that. That holds people back because, as you and I know, there is no god. And all these things that people attribute to god, as you were somewhat humorously pointing out with irony earlier, are not caused by god--they're caused by actual events in the world and by what people do. But if you have the notion that this is beyond the realm of people not only to change, but even to understand, then that's going to definitely put a limit on how far you can carry the struggle. It's going to stand in the way ultimately. Even while some people may be motivated by their religious beliefs to fight against oppression, ultimately that's going to stand in the way. It's going to conflict with their really grasping--like we were talking about all the way through this discussion, we're talking about confronting the world as it actually is, objective reality, and then transforming it on that basis. But 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.

Materialism, Spirituality, and the Struggle to End Oppression

CD: Ok, well, while we're talking about this, here's one other thing I want to pose to you. There are a number of people among the oppressed who will pretty much say to you--and they might not be pulled in or sucked into this fundamentalist thing, but they'll say to you, "look, we as Black people, or we as Chicano or indigenous people," or whatever particular nationality that they may be coming from--they'll say to you that "our people are fundamentally a spiritual people, and that's very important to our being and how we exist, and if you're not taking that into account then you're not going to be able to relate to our people."

BA: Well, I think again, as we were talking about earlier--like we've seen in the '60s when the oppressed brought forward a powerful movement of resistance with a strong revolutionary current, a lot of people broke with that idea, broke with the idea that you somehow needed to have the protection, the backing of some supernatural force or whatever, and felt that they could rely on mobilizing their own ranks to struggle against the oppression. So we've seen the opposite come forth in times when there is an upsurge. It goes to our point about how when revolution has its day, people see things another way.

But there's also a lot of confusion out here about spirituality--and, on the other side, materialism. When we're talking about materialism, we're not talking about people getting as many consumer goods as they can. I mean, that's the kind of notion of materialism that's propagated, and this confuses people with the notion that when you talk about materialism you're talking about acquiring a lot of material wealth, or material goods, and a lot of people do rebel against that because it sort of sickens them--you know, this whole money-grubbing, grab everything, accumulate everything you can, "you are what you own," and all that kind of stuff. But what we mean by materialism is just that it has to do with matter, not with consuming. It has to do with the fact that we believe that matter exists, that reality exists, that it exists independently of people and it's not the extension of people's ideas or thinking, or of some god, but that matter, the substance of reality, exists independently and that we have to understand matter in motion in its changingness and development in order to understand what the real conditions are that we are dealing with. That's what we mean by materialism, it has to do with that. But there's confusion about that, and people, in some positive ways, rebel against the popular conception of materialism--of consuming, consuming, consuming.

And, on the other hand, another factor that makes it complicated is that it is true that, for example, among some Native American peoples (or, as you say, some Black people or some other indigenous people) there is an historical phenomenon where their spiritual beliefs...most people throughout the world have their own origin myths--where their people came from and how they fit into the universe--which is part of their own sense of themselves as a people and their coherence. After all, the Old Testament, the Jewish scriptures--what are they but the origin myths of that people, you know, the ancient Jewish people? And now it's been codified into a Bible and declared to be universal. But the core of that, the beginning of it--Genesis and all that--is just the origin myths of that particular people at that particular time, several thousand years ago. But for the oppressed people a lot of times their culture comes under attack, and their very way of life has been attacked and in large measure uprooted by the workings of the capitalist and imperialist system (and the slave system before it). They feel that hanging on to this culture and way of life and defending this is a part of their identity and a part of their resistance to oppression. This is something that does have to be taken into account.

And the way to deal with that is, yes, we have to struggle with people to take up materialism--and there's also confusion about spirituality. People use that to describe all kinds of things. They use it to describe having a certain morale, or having a lofty sense or lofty ideals or principles that you believe in. It's used in a lot of different ways as well as meaning religion or belief in the supernatural, and it's important to sort out what people mean when they say spirituality. Because we use the word "spirit" too--to mean that you're inspired by our revolutionary vision, and you hold to the principles that give life to that revolutionary vision. So even we use that word, but we don't mean something supernatural or unexplainable or whatever. But going back to the indigenous people, there is that question that this is bound up with their identity as a people, and while we have to struggle with people to take up materialism and dialectics and a scientific understanding of reality as it actually is, we also have to understand that by fighting against and ultimately uprooting the forms and ways in which various indigenous peoples and other oppressed people are oppressed, that's going to be the basis from which, in their masses, they're going to be able to sort out different things and what is really essential and what is something that was only necessary during a certain stage of their development, when they were trying to, as I said, come up with an explanation for their--for where they came from and how they fit into the whole universe.

It's very interesting, if you look at a lot of the names that indigenous people have given themselves all over the world, including in the U.S., a lot of times it just means (when translated into English it just means) "the people," because they had this development and they're trying to explain to themselves and for future generations where did they come from and how do they fit into everything. And we're trying to move to a whole new stage of history where we'll have great diversity in humanity but not oppressor and oppressed. And where we'll have a world community of freely associating human beings who are consciously and voluntarily changing the world and changing themselves. As Mao said, that's our vision. And in moving to that, yes, people have to take up a scientific viewpoint, but they also won't feel that they need to maintain and uphold some of their mythology that's been part of their evolution as a people because they won't be under attack in the same way. They won't be dominated and oppressed in the same way that they've been for centuries now.

Also, people's vision and understanding of themselves changes as the world changes. A lot of indigenous peoples have moved from once place to another--not only driven there by conquerors but also by the changing conditions, whether in Mexico or whatever, climatic changes, etc. Sometimes the game that was a big part of their way of living was killed off or died off, and they had to change their way of living. They had to settle down and do settled agriculture instead of doing gathering and hunting, and they developed different myths and a different culture to explain and to give cohesion to their life in that way. That's also what the Bible is about again. The Bible (or the Qur'an) is about people who are living a more nomadic life and then settled down into more settled agriculture, herding, and also trading and a mercantile life.

So people's view of themselves and the culture they develop around that is not static and unchanging for all time but changes with their conditions, which change because of many factors. As we uproot oppression throughout the world and eliminate the domination by one people over another, as well as one class over another and different sections of society over others, then people's conditions are going to change and their way of viewing all this and viewing the world is going to change correspondingly--and not because they're forced to but because they will voluntarily change it as they're presented with a systematic scientific view of how to understand all this and how to put it in historical perspective.

As the burden of oppression is lifted off them, they will more and more take up the scientific viewpoint and change their view of things in accordance with the changing conditions. And I think that's how this has to be dealt with. It has to be understood in that broad a perspective. Again, at any given time we are always trying to win the advanced among the oppressed to take up the scientific world outlook of MLM, but we also have to understand the broader and contradictory phenomenon out there and deal with that in the correct way, with unity-struggle-unity and putting the emphasis on uniting people to fight against and uproot and eventually completely abolish all these different forms of oppression. And with that will come a change that people will voluntarily embrace in their way of understanding and changing the world.

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