Ernest Belfort Bax

“Religion” and Socialism

(8 June 1895)

“Religion” and Socialism, Justice, 8th June 1895, p.4.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In this day and in this country of “Labour Churches,” popular Socialistic organs aptly described as combinations of the New Testament and the Sporting Times, not to speak of “Guilds of St. Matthew,” “Toynbee Halls,” and other middle class organisations professing social ends with a quasi-religious colouring, it is not uninteresting to consider the meaning of modern English religion and its prospects as affecting the Socialist movement. A quarter of a century ago a quite different state of things presented itself here to what we now see. In the later sixties and early seventies the main bulk of British respectability still floated on the backwash of traditional dogmatic beliefs. Side by side with this was a small section of half-avowed “Liberal” thinkers and “Unitarians” among the better educated section of the middle. Classes. With the working classes, if we except a fringe addicted to Nonconformity in some parts of the country, the average attitude was one of indifference. There was here, however, an extreme section which, in conjunction with a similar section of the smaller middle-class openly professed disbelief in the current theology, and constituted the Secularist party under the leadership of the late Charles Bradlaugh. Their “freethought” may have been sometimes of a somewhat crude description, out they held to it with a tenacity deserving of all praise – and often at considerable detriment to their worldly prospects.

Less than a generation has changed all this. The old dogmatic basis as such, has collapsed with few exceptions among all classes of society. It has not so much perished in consequence of direct attack, as through having been undermined by new conceptions of the universe and new modes of approaching old problems. At the same time, while the old theological beliefs have been crumbling, and a truce of universal tolerance proclaimed on this ground, the great economic problem has forced itself upon the attention of all classes. New social ideals have taken the place of old personal and theological ones, and the full truth of modern Socialism is yearly absorbing larger and larger masses of the proletariat, and even of the better elements among the cultivated middle classes. But though the conception of the universe which was the foundation of the historical religions has largely fallen away, the churches, the organisations which formed their material embodiment, still remain with all their wealth and vested interests. Moreover the charm attaching to the phrases of the old beliefs for those who have been brought up in them survives the faith in their old meaning, and they have become by long association “blessed words” possessing, as such, a savour for some minds which no truth expressed in its simplicity, and in, modern phraseology could ever acquire. They are a sauce without the aid of which some cannot swallow their food. Hence the popularity of those societies which retain the old theological formulas, while filling them with a new social meaning, thus precisely exemplifying the metaphor of the new wine and the old bottles.

But the phenomenon here spoken of is by no means new. Similar thing occurred in the transition from Paganism to Christianity. Paganism as most of the readers of Justice are probably aware, was throughout its whole compass the ideal expression or religion of the ancient world of small civic societies, and presupposed the old-world sentiment or notion, of the oneness of man and human society with nature and the personified forces or aspects of nature. Now at the time when the old civic societies were being merged in the universal dominion of the Roman empire (i.e. when Christianity was growing up) and when the naive belief of early man in nature-worship had faded among the educated and the mass of the townsfolk, theological interests became uppermost in men’s minds, and became so in proportion as the old social and natural interests lost their meaning and import. Christianity proved itself the most adequate expression of the new mental attitude that the reflective part of mankind was acquiring, and hence its historical success. But, nevertheless, throughout its whole development up to and even after its final triumph there were numbers of men, who under various names while really as distinctly Christian as the Christians themselves in their objects of ideal interest, yet fanatically adhered to the forms and shibboleths of the old Pagan religion, into which they infused a new meaning consonant with the prevailing aspirations of mankind. In this way, while all their enthusiasm was drawn from the new theological atmospheres they endeavoured to persuade themselves and other people that they were as zealous votaries of the gods and their ancient ceremonial as their fathers had been, that they were only attaching to the old religion its true meaning.

History repeats itself to-day with a difference. While all have tacitly or avowedly given up the old theological ideal and adopted a new social one (correct or incorrect) in its place, there are large numbers whom worldly interest or personal inclination urges to do so under cover of their old creed. Hence it is we see such a strong tendency in the present day among social reformers, and more or less inchoate Socialists to adopt Christian phraseology in working for their respective ends. But we should be in error in attributing the energy and enthusiasm often shown by such persons as indicating a revival of “religion” in the old sense. What really animates them is undoubtedly the contagion of the Socialist atmosphere in which they live, and not the superficial coating of Christian sentiment which is put forward, and to which they and other people might be disposed to attribute their zeal, but which never showed such results in the palmy days of Christian theological belief.


E. Belfort Bax


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