Enrico Ferri 1894

Socialism and Religious Beliefs

Source: Chapter 5 of Socialism and Positive Science, published in Italian, 1894, English translation, 1905;
Transcribed: by Adam Buick.
Proofread: by Andy Carloff 2010.

None of the three contradictions between socialism and Darwinism which Haeckel formulated, and which so many authors have repeated after him, withstands a frank and more exact examination of the natural laws attached to the name of Charles Darwin.

I add that not only is Darwinism not contrary to socialism, but that it forms one of its fundamental scientific premises. As Virchow justly remarked, socialism is nothing else than the logical and vital outcome partly of Darwinism and partly of Spencerian evolution.

Darwin’s theory, whether one likes it or not, in showing that man descends from animals, has struck a great blow at the belief in God as the creator of the universe and of man by a special fiat. It is for that reason, moreover, that the most implacable opposition, and the only one which subsists against his scientific induction was, and is, maintained in the name of religion.

It is true that Darwin did not declare himself an Atheist, and Mr. Spencer was not one; it is also true that, strictly speaking, Darwin’s theory and Spencer’s can be reconciled with a belief in God, because one can admit that God has created matter and force, and that both have then evolved their successive forms following an initial creative impulse.

One cannot however deny that these theories, whilst rendering more and more inflexible and universal the idea of causality, lead necessarily to the negation of God, because one can always ask oneself: “and who has created God?” And if the answer is: “God has always existed,” one can retort by affirming that the universe has always existed. Following the remark of M. Ardig̣, human thought cannot conceive that the chain which binds effects to causes, can terminate at a purely conventional given point.[1]

God, as Laplace has said, is an hypothesis of which positive science has no need. He is, according to Herzen, at the most an X which contains in itself not the unknowable – as Spencer and Dubois Reymond claim – but all that humanity does not yet know. Also it is a variable X which decreases in proportion as the discoveries of science advance.

It is for this reason that science and religion are in inverse ratio one to the other; the one diminishes and becomes feeble in the same measure as the other increases and is strengthened in its struggle with the unknown.

And if this is a consequence of Darwinism, its influence on the development of socialism is perfectly evident.

The disappearance of the faith in something beyond when the poor will become the elect of the Lord, and when the miseries of this “valley of tears” will find an eternal compensation in Paradise, gives more vigour to the desire of a little “terrestrial Paradise” down here for the unhappy and the less fortunate who are the most numerous.

Hartmann and Guyaul[2] have shown that the evolution of religious beliefs can be thus summarised: all religions have within themselves the promise of happiness, but primitive religions admit that the happiness will be realised during the life itself of the individual, and later religions, by an excess of reaction, transport it outside this mortal world after death; in the last phase this realisation of happiness is again replaced in human life, no longer in the short moment of individual existence, but in the continued evolution of the whole of humanity.

On this side again, socialism is joined to religious evolution and tends to substitute itself for religion because it desires precisely that humanity should have in itself its own “terrestrial paradise” without having to wait for it in a “something beyond,” which, to say the least, is very problematical.

Also it has been very justly remarked that the socialist movement has numerous characteristics common, for instance, to primitive Christianity, notably its ardent faith in the ideal which has finally deserted the arid field of bourgeois scepticism, and certain learned men, not socialists, such as Messrs. Wallace, Laveleye and Roberty, etc., admit that socialism, by its humanitarian faith can perfectly replace the faith in the “something beyond” of the old religions.

The most direct and efficacious relations are, however, those which exist between socialism and the belief in God.

It is true that Marxian socialism since the Congress held at Erfurt (1891) has rightly declared that religious beliefs are a private affair, and that consequently, the socialist party will fight religious intolerance in all its forms, whether it be directed against Catholics or Jews, as I have indicated in an article against Antisemitism.[3] But this superiority of view is, at the bottom, only a consequence of confidence in a final victory.

It is because socialism knows and foresees that religious beliefs, whether we consider them with M. Sergi[4] as pathological phenomena of human psychology or as useless phenomena of moral incrustation, must waste away before the extension of even elementary scientific culture; it is for that reason that socialism does not feel the necessity of fighting specially these same religious beliefs which are destined to disappear. It has taken this attitude even though it knows that the absence, or lessening, of the belief in God is one of the most powerful factors in its extension, because the priests of all religions have been, in all phases of history, the most powerful allies of the governing classes in keeping the masses bent under the yoke, thanks to religious fascination, as the tamer keeps wild beasts under his whip.

And that is so true that the most clear-sighted conservatives, even if they are atheists, regret that the religious sentiment – this very precious narcotic – should continue to diminish among the masses, because they see in it, if their pharisaism does not allow them to say it openly, an instrument of political domination.[5]

Unhappily, or happily, the religious sentiment cannot be re-established by a royal decree. If it disappear one cannot blame either Titius or Caius, and there is no need of a special propaganda against it for that is in the air we breathe – saturated as it is with scientific, experimental inductions – and the sentiment no longer finds conditions favourable to its development, as it found in the mystic ignorance of past centuries.

I have thus shown the direct influence of modern positive science, which has substituted the conception of natural causality for the conception of miracle and divinity, on the very rapid development and on the experimental foundation of contemporary socialism.

Democratic socialism does not view “Catholic socialism” with an evil eye, because it has nothing to fear from it.

Catholic socialism, in fact, contributes to the propaganda of socialist ideas, notably in the rural districts, where faith and religious observance have still much life in them, and it is not Catholic socialism that will gather the palm of victory ad majorem Dei gloriam. As I have shown, there is an increasing antagonism between science and religion, and the socialist varnish will not be able to preserve Catholicism. “Terrestrial” socialism, besides, possesses a much greater power of attraction.

When peasants are familiarized with the views of Catholic socialism, it will be very easy for democratic socialism to collect them under its own flag. They will, moreover, themselves effect their own conversion.

Socialism finds itself in an analogous position towards republicanism. Just as Atheism is a private matter that concerns the individual conscience, so the republic is a private affair that interests portions of the bourgeoisie. Certainly when socialism is ready to triumph, Atheism will have made immense progress, and the republic will have been established in many lands which to-day submit to a monarchical regime. But it is not socialism which develops Atheism any more than it is socialism which will establish the republic. Atheism is a product of the theories of Darwin and Spencer in the present bourgeois civilization, and the republic has been, and will be, in different countries the work of a part of the capitalist bourgeoisie, as was recently written in some Conservative newspapers of Milan, when it was said, “the monarchy will no longer serve the interests of the country” – that is to say, of the class in power.

The evolution from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy and to republicanism, is an evident historical law; in the civilization of to-day the only difference is in the elective or the hereditary character of the head of the State. In the different European countries the bourgeoisie itself will demand this passage from the monarchy to the republic in order to delay as long as possible the triumph of socialism. In Italy as in France, in England as in Spain, one sees only too many Republicans or Radicals whose attitude towards social questions is more bourgeois and conservative than that of intelligent Conservatives. At Montecitorio, for example, M. R. Imbriani, has in religious and social matters more conservative opinions than M. di Rudini. M. Imbriani, whose personality is moreover very sympathetic, has never attacked a priest or a monk – he who attacks the whole universe, and very often rightly, though without much success, in consequence of an error in his method – and he alone has opposed even with blows the law proposed by M. L. Ferrari, deputy, who increased the succession tax on inheritances in the indirect line.

Socialism has thus no more interest in preaching republicanism than it has in preaching Atheism. To each his role, that is the law of division of labour. The struggle against Atheism is the business of science ; the establishment of the republic has been, and will be, the action in the different countries of Europe of the bourgeoisie itself, Conservative or Radical. All that is history marching towards socialism, whilst individuals are unable to hinder or retard the succession of the phases of the moral, political and social evolution.

1. Ardiga La Formazione naturale, vol 11, in his Opere filologiche, and vol. 6, La Ragione Padua, 1894.

2.What is predominant, however, in religious beliefs, is the hereditary or traditional sentimental factor; that is what makes them always respectable, if they are professed in good faith, and often even sympathetic - and that precisely on account of the candid and delicate sensibility of the persons among whom religious faith is the most vital and sincere.

3. Nuova Rassegna, August, 1894.

4. Sergi L’ origine dei fenomeni psichici e loro significazione biologica, Milan, 1885, p. 334 and the following.

5. As for the pretended influence of religion on personal morality, I have shown what little foundation there is for this opinion in my studies of criminal psychology, and more especially in Omicidio nell'antropologia criminale.

Pharisaism is observance of the external forms of religion without genuine belief.