AGAINST RELIGIOSITY IN POLITICS
Religious beliefs and practises in contemporary Britain appear, for the majority of people, to be in sharp decline. Adherence to and participation in the main Christian denominations has greatly diminished in recent decades. It seems that for secularists in Britain we are well on the way to “a battle won”.
Yet is this really the case? Unfortunately not. Religious attitudes towards the world remain widespread and strong among many people who on the surface appear to be non-religious and even anti-religious, militantly atheistic. I will illustrate this continuing religiosity with reference to the attitudes and behaviour of some contemporary secular doctrines; Marxism, environmentalism and neoliberalism. My involvement in progressive causes, e.g. the anti-war movement, over many years has made me increasingly aware that many apparently non-religious adherents of these doctrines are in fact deeply religious. What is more, their religiosity is not of the mild, semi-agnostic kind exhibited by many Anglicans but rather of a much more committed, fundamentalist kind.
In order to examine this phenomenon I am drawing upon a psychological model originally put forward by the American psychologist Eric Hoffer, the true believer.
THE TRUE BELIEVER
- The present is a time of crisis. This is of primary importance and all other aspects of life are secondary.
- Malignant forces are widespread. Eternal vigilance is necessary to prevent them prevailing and to avoid becoming contaminated.
- Some great cataclysm is immanent. The main task in life is to prevent or deal with it.
- The pronouncements of leaders are sacrosanct. Those who question such wisdom must be denounced.
- There is complete, unquestioning faith in a particular doctrine. Knowledge is certain with respect to certain key questions.
- There is a sense of being one of the elect with a special, exclusive insight and vision not possessed by other people. The future of humanity or the whole world depends upon the actions of the elect.
In my personal experience I have noticed that many true believers exhibit an interesting physiological symptom. When they are holding forth their eyeballs bulge.
First of all, some general remarks about environmentalists and Marxists.
The Green Movement – it emerged in last 40 years or so and is concerned about environmental devastation brought about by human actions. It has been very successful in putting these matters on the political agenda, especially planetary warming and its consequences. Governments and international bodies now recognise this is a major problem although inadequate action is being taken to deal with it. Is only crackpots such as Nigel Lawson who seriously deny the magnitude of these problems.
But there is a mystical reactionary side to the Green Movement. The term “dark green religion” has been coined by American academic, Bron Taylor, to refer to this phenomenon. This is the belief that nature is somehow sacred and thus should be revered. This is sometimes called pantheism, the notion that nature has some sort of conscious life. The Gaia Hypothesis put forward by James Lovelock has encouraged this tendency, much to Lovelock’s annoyance.
Marxists – the religious tendencies of Marxists have often commented upon, e.g. by Robert Tucker. He pointed out the similarity between Christian eschatology and the Marxist view of history which posits a progression from primitive communism to a fall into class society leading to eventual redemption through a return to communism.
Similarities between small Marxist groups and religious sects are often commented upon. Marxists of all types have such tendencies but in Britain it is most noticeable among Trotskyites, especially the defunct Workers Revolutionary Party and the Spartacist League. Their sectarian characteristics include total commitment to the group, doctrinal rigidity, inclusivity and male leaders expecting sexual favours from female followers.
1. “Crisis” must be one of the most over-used and misapplied words in the radical lexicon. Marxists are always talking about the “crisis of capitalism” and environmentalists talk about the “energy crisis”, “a crisis of sustainability”, etc.. The term ‘crisis’ comes from medicine where it is used to refer to the critical turning point in the progress of an illness such as a fever. It is a brief phase in which either the illness is overcome or the patient succumbs to it and dies. A ‘crisis’ is not simply a big problem and it is not a continuing condition. It is a passing, short-lived phenomenon.
It is reasonable to talk about crises in human affairs but these are very occasional and passing phenomena, e.g. Russia in February 1917, France in May 1968, the banking crisis of 2008. Usually, they are not foreseen. Also environmental crises can occur, e.g. a large asteroid or comet hitting the Earth. To talk as if human societies and the physical environment are in a state of “permanent crisis” is misleading. Trotskyites talk about a “permanent crisis” of capitalism which clearly is a contradiction in terms. This use of the term probably tells us more about the state of mind of those using it rather than the real state of affairs in the world. In Autumn 2008 there was a major financial crisis when many banks were tottering on the brink of collapse. Massive financial bail-outs by governments prevented major economic collapse. Subsequently there were government insolvencies in some Eurozone countries such as Greece and Spain. But again support from other governments dealt with the crisis. True, the outcome of these events is economic stagnation across the Western capitalist countries and this is a major problem for us all but not a crisis. A frequent outcome of these sort of political pronouncements is many people becoming disillusioned with Marxist and environmentalist perspectives because the continual prophecies of imminent doom do not materialise.
2. The true believer experiences the world as pervaded by all-embracing malignant forces. Evil is rampant in the world. For Marxists it is the capitalist class and their agents who are the sinister manipulators while for the environmentalists it is multinational corporations and the governments that serve them. It is true that bourgeois interests are the dominant ones in the world today and their influence does not on the whole serve the common good. However, the true believers tend to present their versions of Marxism and environmentalism in the form of crude conspiracy theories, e.g. the 11th. September incidents were presented as a fiendish plot orchestrated by the CIA to give the US state an excuse to attack Afghanistan. Similarly the Libyan and Syrian uprisings were seen as being brought about by wicked plots orchestrated by US imperialism. The environmentalists added to the scenario by claiming that American oil companies were desperate to lay a pipeline from Central Asia through Afghanistan. This type of interpretation of political and economic events attributes much greater insight into the forces influencing the course of human affairs that neither the bourgeoisie nor anyone else possesses. Certainly, imperialist governments and multinational companies have general policy objectives that they try to pursue and they seize opportunities as they arise to achieve their objectives. But they are not all-knowing and all-powerful. The course of historical events cannot be adequately explained in terms of conspiracies dreamed up by small groups of people.
The true believer is constantly on guard against being contaminated by malignant forces. For Marxists these take the form of “reformism”, “revisionism”, “Stalinism”, etc.. Very often, holding a “correct position” is more important for those concerned than engaging in any practical activity to achieve their declared political objectives. Maintaining inner ideological purity is the primary concern. For environmentalists the fear of contamination takes on a physical dimension. There is a preference for so-called “organic” food which is allegedly free of “chemicals” and “artificial additives” even though research by bodies such as the Food Standards Authority have shown most of these fears to be unfounded. The notion of “organic food” is ridiculous because all of it is except for salt. Genetically modified crops and genetic engineering are opposed on the grounds that they are “unnatural” and will inevitably have negative consequences for people and the environment, again in the absence of any real evidence to that effect. GM food is widely referred to as “Frankenstein foods” which betrays an underlying religiosity, the fear of the evil consequences of tampering with God’s divine order. This fear of contamination by impure, unclean substances is very similar to the beliefs of some religions such as Hinduism and Islam.
3. For the true believer the present crisis is a presage of an immanent cataclysm of some kind. Marxists often foresee a major economic collapse coming bringing about the collapse of share prices and millions of workers thrown into unemployment. Sooner or later if people keep making this prophecy then eventually they will probably get lucky. However Marxists of all stripes have shown themselves to be incapable of making an adequate political response. In 1987 there was a major fall in share price levels on stock exchanges around the world which in Britain coincided with the “Great Storm” in which large numbers of trees were blown down. This served to heighten the sense of apocalypse not just among Marxists but also among the Greens who saw it as an ominous portent of radical climate change. Although the 1987 share price fall occurred in the middle of the last major depression – in the middle of the roughly fifty year cycle of boom and slump known as the Kondratieff curve – it did not result in a catastrophic collapse of capitalism. Neither did the destruction of many tens of thousands of trees lead to deforestation. Ecologists have been pleasantly surprised at just how quickly new trees have grown and, indeed, there is more woodland and forest in Western Europe than there has been for 150 or 200 years.
The environmentalists are perhaps even more attached to cataclysmic scenarios than are some Marxists. In 1972 the Club of Rome report The Limits of Growth predicted that because of ecological disaster human life as we had known it would no longer exist by around 2000. When Greens are confronted with this false prophecy a typical reposte is that such an eventuallity will occur but that the Club of Rome got the time scale wrong. This reminds one of religious sects such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses who periodically revise the date for the apocalypse. Now some environmentalists talk about a forthcoming “tipping point” where rising levels of greenhouse gases wil produce a sudden collapse in the planetary ecosystem with disastrous worldwide consequences, as depicted in Hollywood films. It seems to me that indeed we are faced with growing ecological problems but that the likely outcome will be steadily mounting problems for people in terms of habitable areas, food supplies, etc. rather than a sudden collapse. One cannot help but form the impression that some of these people actually do fervently desire that ecological disaster will occur. Mixed in with this wish is the idea that the human species is irredemiably morally compromised by the ways in which it has acted on the planet and deserves extreme punishment. Indeed, some “Deep Greens” look forward to the extermination of the human species. All of this seems very similar to the Christian concept of original sin which will be washed away by the apocalypse.
Marxists of Trotskyist persuasions tend to subscribe to “big bang” conceptions of the end of capitalism and the coming of socialism whereby proletarian revolution occurs more or less simultaneously on a world scale, “permanent revolution”. They are hostile to the idea that the conditions for socialist revolution will come about at different times in different parts of the world: “socialism in one country”. The experience of the last 150 years suggests that the uneven development of capitalism throughout the world does determine that conditions suitable for revolution have and will develop unevenly in different parts of the world. The big bang theory smacks of the sort of apocalyptic conceptions found in the Book of Revelations. More likely, just as in the case of the emergence of modern capitalism, is that communism will come about over a period of many generations as a result of a series of periodic revolutionary convulsions. However, this will be a protracted process with many twists and turns and not something that occurs suddenly and decisively. Nonetheless, given the accelerating rate of planetary warming the need to overthrow capitalism and start to move along the socialist road towards communism is becoming ever more urgent.
4. For true believers the pronouncements of the recognised leaders of their movement are unquestionable, are sacrosanct. With Marxists it is the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, etc. – depending upon which particular grouping is supported – that have the status of sacred texts. It is assumed that a political position can be sustained by finding suitable quotes from the prophets to sustain it. This reminds one strongly of fundamentalist Christians who justify a theological position by means of finding appropriate texts in the Bible. One example is that of the theory that the working class in imperialist countries receives a part of the “superprofits” that capitalist firms in imperialist countries extract from their investments in poor countries. Living at least partly from the exploitation of poor people, it is claimed, we have become morally corrupted and thus incapable of opposing capitalism. This theory derives from some very brief and unsystematic comments made by Engels and Lenin. They do not put forward any convincing empirical evidence to support their contention. Yet for many Marxists this proposition is carved in tablets of stone and is unquestionable. Disputing the pronouncements of the founding fathers assumes the status of blasphemy and puts the heretic concerned beyond the pale.
Just the same as fundamentalist Christians can find suitable Biblical quotations to sustain diametrically opposed theological positions, so it is that some Marxists do the same on the basis of selective textual quotes. For example, this can be done to show that Marx did/did not think that a parliamentary road to socialism is possible, that Lenin did/did not think that Marxists should enter the Labour Party, etc.. Of course, this approach is quite alien to the scientific methodology that the Marxist leaders vehemently espoused even if they did not always practice it. By all means use a quotation from some recognised leader to illustrate a political point but such an approach can neither confirm nor refute a particular political position. That can only be done by means of a rigorous application of theory and practice.
Environmentalists claim that their positions are based on the latest findings of various applied natural sciences, i.e. climatology, ecology, oceanography, etc.. Yet they too react emotionally to anyone who dares to challenge the tenets that have become their conventional wisdom. One case concerned the Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg who in his book The Skeptical Environmentalist dared to critically examine some of the major articles of faith of the Green Movement, e.g. the rate at which global warming is occurring. Lomborg implicitly recognises the innate religiosity of much of the Green Movement by referring to their belief system that the environment is steadily deteriorating as a litany. As a result of his critical review of some of the articles of faith of the Green Movement Lomborg has been hysterically denounced and even physically assaulted. For greenies, Lomborg was the blaspheming heretic par excellance and one cannot help thinking that some of them would have like to burn him at the stake. In fact Lomberg’s scepticism about the rate of global warming has turned out to be unfounded in the light of subsequrnt data. However the point is that the scientific way to criticise him is to challenge his data on empirical grounds and not to abuse and physically assault him.
5. Both Marxism and environmentalism claim to take a scientific approach towards understanding and acting on the world. The very nature of scientific enquiry is to be open-ended, to treat all findings as ultimately provisional, as having the possibility of being refuted at some time in the future. Yet many Marxists and environmentalists have complete faith in their doctrines. They think that they hold absolute knowledge with respect to certain key questions. Many Marxists claim that “socialism is inevitable”, that sooner or later it will supersede capitalism. More plausible is the proposition that the conditions brought about by capitalism make socialism a possibility, something that could be brought about as a result of deliberate, conscious political action. This element of indeterminacy is angrily rejected by many Marxists who are just as certain that socialism and communism will occur as are fundamentalist Christians sure about the second coming of Christ.
Many environmentalists are convinced that there are insufficient natural resources, especially fossil fuels, to sustain for much longer the human species at its present standards of material life. Some of them are extremely hostile to claims that with the application of developing technologies it will be quite possible to meet people’s needs without us all being reduced to a subsistence standard of living. Ten years ago many environmentalists predicted that within a decade or two the USA would face an energy crisis because of diminishing oil reserves. Now America is becoming energy sufficient and a net exporter of energy thanks to fracking for natural gas. They take this attitude even with respect to renewable sources of energy such as solar power. Once having taken up this position they treat it as an article of blind faith and either ignore or reject any evidence to the contrary. One gets the impression that some environmentalists are looking forward to an ecological catastrophe and would be rather disappointed if it does not occur.
A scientific attitude towards the world treats all knowledge as provisional, that there is the possibility that in the future something now held to be true will turn out to be false. This type of mature scepticism is quite different from the blind faith of the true believer. As Marx said, “Question everything.”The true believers see themselves as having a special insight which only they possess. The Marxists think that their doctrine gives them a comprehensive understanding of the workings of contemporary capitalism and its inevitable demise. For the environmentalists it is their firm belief that the planet is remorselessly heading for ecological doom which only they have the knowledge to avert.
This attitude can give rise on the part of the elect to a disdainful and dismissive attitude towards other people who fail to grasp these special visions. Either they are seen as simply stupid or wilfully morally culpable, as consciously rejecting the truths that seem so obvious to the elect. Some Marxists see the working class in advanced capitalist countries such as Britain as corrupted by sharing in “the superprofits of imperialism”, as having sold out on their historical mission in return for cheap package holidays in Spain. Some “deep green” environmentalists have come to believe that the human species itself is a blight on the planet and because of the wilful, selfish environmental degradation it is bringing about it would be best if humanity were to cease to exist. In both cases there is the implicit notion that large sections of humanity are in a state of sin and thus deserving of punishment.
One paradox of the true believer is that typically they start out on their political careers having a great sympathy and concern for people suffering from oppression and exploitation but often end up having contempt for and even hating those very same people. These humanists become misanthropists. Their centre of concern shifts from an external orientation of striving to change the world to an internal focus of maintaining their own inner integrity and purity in the face of an irredeemably corrupted and doomed world.
Neo-liberalism is an economic doctrine which has become predominant in world during last thirty years and has been followed by British governments in their attempts to promote economic revival. For neo-liberals their god is the market, or markets in its polytheistic version. We must subordinate ourselves to the all-powerful market because otherwise there will be negative consequences for us. The financial “structural deficit” must be reduced because otherwise the markets will lose confidence in us and we will be punished by rising interest rates and inflation. We have fallen into the paths of temptation by borrowing too much from banks, building societies, etc. We should have resisted our avaristic desires. Now, we must suffer austerity to atone for our sins. Only when we become truly repentant will the market regain confidence in us and bring about economic recovery.
So far, there has been no economic recovery so the Government has imposed further cuts in public spending to try to regain market confidence. Just like ancient civilisations, such as the Maya, when some natural calamity occurred it was assumed that the gods have been offended and must be placated by ever greater human sacrifices. Cameron, Osborne and their successors have told us that we must endure many years of hardship.
Do the politicians, including the Labourites, really believe all this nonsense? Yes, most of them do because ideology is strong. Even bourgeois politicians want to see themselves as doing the right thing and not as tricksters and deceivers. They know that the market concretely consists of people producing, distributing and consuming commodities. But at the same time it seems to have a life of its own which is beyond the control of governments. And in a sense they are right. Under capitalism we are not in control of our collective economic life. The system which we have created confronts us as a force beyond our control, what Marx called alienation.
One aspect of this alienation is the worship of money. The finance capitalists were mystified by money and thought they could endlessly get the value of money to expand by means of complicated financial devices. Their worship of Mammon received a nasty jolt in 2008 when the banking system went into crisis. It is the economists, people such as Mervyn King (former Govenor of the Bank of England), who are the high priests of this religion of the market. Just as the priests of ancient cults rummaged around in animal entrails to find portents of the future, the economists try to read signs of recovery in the economic statistics.
In conclusion, here is a brief contrast between the scientific and religious outlooks:
SCIENTIFIC AND RELIGIOUS OUTLOOKS
General attitude Optimism Pessimism
Source of knowledge Reason Emotion
Test of knowledge Congruity with Congruity with
Status of knowledge Provisional Absolute
Scope of knowledge Partial Total
Use of knowledge Practice Reassurance
The battle against religiosity has not been won. Religion continues to rear its ugly head, in new, secular guises. The struggle must be renewed. As Mao Tse-tung said to the young Dalia Lama, “Religion, my boy, is poison.”