E. Belfort Bax

Religion v. Ethics

(21 September 1901)

Religion v. Ethics, Justice, 21st September 1901, p.6 (letter).
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.


What comrade Ellam writes, in general, is so excellent and his last contribution to Justice, in particular, is so worthy of all acceptation, that one almost hesitates to offer a criticism on what may seem to some a trivial point of terminology. But, as I cannot regard the point in question quite in this light, perhaps I may be permitted to make a few remarks thereupon. Our friend Ellam, like many others, would identify the term “religion” with theology, separating it in kind from ethics. Now I venture to think this is a mistake, I fail to see any reason for giving up the word “religion” as meaning the cult of the highest ideal of a given age. The religion of primitive man was simply and purely social in character. It embodied itself in ceremonies and what we should call magical formulas and involved sacrificial rites and feasts, it is true. But this was merely in consonance with the theory of the universe or of the nature of things proper to the animistic phase of mind belonging to primitive man. Its end as religion was the glory of the kinship society. Its means was the only “science” known to that society. Similarly, the so-called universal or ethical religions, whose ideal was primarily individualistic (cf., Christianity) are bound up with the more refined and developed forms of animism called theology, because this also represents the way of looking at things peculiar to that stage of human development. Lastly, we, while rejecting the individualist ideal of the great religions and returning to the social ideal of primitive man transformed and universalised as modern international scientific Socialism, have finally left animism behind us, whether in its earlier crude or its later refined form. We have no magic formula and sacrificial ceremonies, but we none the less have our religion of Socialism, although its rites consist at present of public meetings, with their chairman for officiating priest, of executive councils, of “demonstrations,” of leaflet distribution, and of party organisation generally, and this is so because our modern scientific and “common sense” way of envisaging the nature of man and the universe leads us to see in the above the means necessary to the attainment of our ideal, just as early society saw the means to its ideal in functions and sacrifices desired for propitiating or doing service to deceased ancestors or personified powers of nature; or again, just as Christianity has seen the means to its introspective individualistic end to lie in its prayers and church services. Hence I, for my part, stick to the old word “religion” and oppose the religion, i.e., the ideal of Socialism, of human solidarity based on modern, scientific conceptions; with all that that connotes, to those earlier religions, earlier ideals and their modern survivals which were and are linked with animistic and supernatural views of the universe. Ethics are concerned with the rule of conduct in everyday life, while the word “religion” always has implied in addition a more far-reaching ideal of some kind or other even though in its earlier phases it may have been a more or less unconscious one. Yours


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 15.6.2004