Felix Morrow

Religion – its social roots and role
(Part II)


Source: Fourth International, Vol. 5 No. 7, July 1944, pp. 213–217.
Proofreader: Einde O’Callaghan (August 2015).
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EDITOR’S NOTE: In the June Issue of Fourth International we published the first of Felix Morrow’s essays on religion which were originally delivered in lecture form before the League of Professional Groups in 1932. This is a second essay in the same series. – Ed.

Why are people religious? The glaring fault of bourgeois atheism is that its analysis of religion gives no hint as a rule of the social roots and function of modern religion. Abstract analyses of religion, even from an atheistic standpoint, thus in effect embellish religion – through omission. One might even say therefore that most bourgeois atheistic writing on religion creates an even greater mystery.

If bourgeois atheists cannot give us insight into why people are religious, still less will we receive our answer from religious people, particularly the professional peddlers of religion, the minister, preacher, priest, or rabbi whose task it is to embellish religion in every conceivable way. In a letter to Gorki, written in December 1913, Lenin pointed out that those who embellish, under any pretext, the idea of God or religion are thereby:

embellishing the chains which shackle the benighted workers and moujiks ... God is (historically and in day-to-day life) first of all a complex of ideas arising from the torpid condition of man under the oppression of external nature and class domination; ideas which reinforce this oppression, ideas which lull the class struggle. (Leninski Sbornik, vol. I, pp. 157–158.)

In a document, On the attitude of a workers’ party to religion, written in 1909, Lenin expounded the Marxist viewpoint as follows:

The social oppression of the toiling masses, their seemingly complete impotence in the face of the blind forces of capitalism, which afflicts the rank-and-file toiling people daily and hourly with far more terrible sufferings and far more savage tortures than such uncommon events as wars, earthquakes and so on – this is where the most profound, modern root of religion is to be found. ‘Fear created the Gods.’ Fear before the blind force of capitalism – a blind force because it cannot be foreseen by the masses of the people – a force which at every step in the life of a proletarian and a petty proprietor threatens to bring and does bring him ‘sudden’, unexpected’, ‘accidental’ bankruptcy, ruination, transformation into a pauper or into a prostitute, or leads to hungry death – there is the root of modern religion. (V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, First Russian Edition, vol. XI, book 1, pp. 253–254.)

Let us now analyse some of the favourite ‘techniques’ – or tricks – of the religionists in order to lay bare what they seek to paint up.

The place of God in religion is emphasised and re-emphasised. Yet no really religious person is religious because, on occasion, he or she can offer ‘arguments’ proving the existence of God. For the common run of believers, which is to say, the overwhelming majority of religious people, God is simply ‘there’. Professional spokesmen of religion have good and sufficient reasons for putting undue emphasis on God.

Theologians and ‘God’

The theologian who must reduce to some order the vague feelings and behaviour of believers finds the most palatable solution in making God the organising principle; the minister, embarrassed by any scrutiny of the efficacy of prayer or the magical elements in ritual, draws attention away from these by emphasising God. In this way the actual relation of means and ends in religion is obscured and dislocated. We are told God is the goal of religion rather than God’s being one of the religious means. In consonance with this tendency, the newer prayer books list fewer and fewer prayers for specific needs and occasions; the Catholic church does not publicise the long roll of specialised saints who cater to specific needs. (Such as Breton saints of healing: St Lubin for all afflictions, Mamert for intestinal disorders, Meen for insanity, Hubert for dog bites, Livertin for headaches and Houarniaule to dispel fear, and so on.) The professional spokesmen for religion would have us ignore the occasion for prayer, the need or desire expressed, and throw the emphasis on the fact that the religionist prays to God.

Any acquaintance with religious people, however, soon teaches one that God is not the object as distinguished from the apparatus of religion, but that God is just as much part of the apparatus of religion as is church, prayer or ritual. The religionist does not pray to God merely in order to pray for God, no more than he prays merely in order to pray. The occasion for prayer need not, of course, be specific: religion is employed not only for specific needs or anxieties, but for the general reinforcement of the believer’s peace of mind, assurance and security. But whether religion is employed for specific or general purposes, in either case, God is part of the religious ‘technique’, not the purpose for which it is employed.

We may grant that there are some men for whom God is apparently not a religious ‘technique’ for expressing or securing needs. God, the religionist claims, is at least for some men not a technique, but an object of contemplation. God is such an object in Spinoza’s intellectual love of God; he is such an object to some mystics and theologians. Even in this type of religious situation, however, the significant factor is not the contemplation of God but the motivation of such contemplation. As Dewey has illustrated in his Quest for Certainty, God is sought, even in Spinoza’s case, because he is changeless and certain, as contrasted with our daily life of uncertainty. In other words, the intellectual love of God is only a sophisticated form of the so-called religious technique to ward off the confusion and peril of everyday life.

For the great masses of believers, this sophisticated form of religious ‘technique’ is unsatisfactory. They do not separate God from the rest of the complex of religious ‘techniques’ and institutions which constitute a church. The few for whom God is an object of contemplation might perhaps view with equanimity the role of the church as a bulwark of capitalism and take for granted the illusory efficacy of religion; but it is certain the masses do not take such a view. The main road to atheism for the masses is the discovery of the reactionary role of the churches and the social inefficacy of religion. A God who is believed to exist and cannot help them is not a God the masses continue to worship. The church may have been founded by Christ himself, but once the masses discover the role of the church, they break with it. The most effective propaganda against religion, as the Soviet Union demonstrates, is to reinforce the arguments against religion from science, proving that God does not exist, by the exposure of the church’s reactionary functions, the venality of the clergy, the fraudulence of relics, etc. Unlike a bourgeois atheist, the Marxist does not confine his systematic attack on religion merely to its ‘truth value’, but probes into its social roots. For the great masses of believers, with whom we are concerned, it is the exposure of the social function of religion that is conclusive.

Ethics and religion

In the same way that religious apologists emphasise the place of God in religion, so they also exaggerate the place of honorific ideals and values. Religion as the defender or conservator of ideals and values is also the position adopted by those so-called humanists who agree that God does not exist but who nevertheless wish to save religion. So the humanistic theologians of the University of Chicago define religion variously as ‘the conservation of human values’ (Ames), ‘a quest for the good life’ (Haydon) or the like. In the same way, but with a franker recognition of the actual role that religion has played, Harry F. Ward appeals to the ethics of Jesus as the true essence of religion. The arguments against any such attempted identifications of religion with ethics are conclusive.

Any ideal or value proposed as religious contains nothing in it which is per se religious. Security, harmony, happiness, the good life, love, peace – what is religious about these? They are the goals of all human effort. They can only be called religious if we falsely define life as a whole as religious. Some humanists do not shrink from this reductio ad absurdum. Professor Haydon, for instance, who defines religion as ‘a quest for the good life’, then goes on to speak indiscriminately of every quest as religious. Such attempts to save religion by relinquishing its identity must, however, be set down as the latest and most cynical defence of a vested interest. The identity of religion will not be found in ethics, though, of course, any ethical ideal may be spuriously expressed or sought for in religion. How efficacious is religion for the realisation of any such ideal? As we have seen, no ideals inimical to capitalism are furthered by religion. The realisation of ideals involves a belief in a kind of supernatural efficacy to which even the Catholic church does not assent publicly too often. I may add that when she does assert her belief in such a degree of supernatural efficacy, the Catholic church does so in support of the capitalist ideals which she furthers as an institution. An example is the Pope ordering prayers for Russia, prayers which, declared the Catholic Commonweal:

may affect the future much more profoundly than the success or failure of the Soviet government’s Five-Year Plan.

The best commentary on the relation of ethics to religion is the way in which the equalitarian doctrines of Jesus and his immediate followers is employed. These have their uses. ‘Christianity a capitalist religion?’ cries the preacher, ‘Why Jesus himself was a poor man!’ Or the rise of the church from its humble beginnings makes a Horatio Alger story edifying to the bourgeoisie and reinforcing the democratic illusions of the churchgoing masses. From Jesus’s cry for charity for the poor the medieval church drew the comforting and highly sophistical conclusion that if charity is a religious duty, we must always have the poor to give it to. The symbolical tendency of religious ritual serves to turn equalitarianism into a ceremonial which only serves to show the masses how good their rulers are. An example is Maundy Thursday. I quote a New York Times story of the last time King Alfonso of Spain was able to perform this pleasant ceremony:

Madrid, April 2 [1932], King Alfonso today got down on his knees in the royal palace to wash the feet of twelve poor men. Queen Victoria, in a gold and white court dress, with a white lace mantilla and elaborate jewels, washed the feet of twelve poor women, and the monarchs afterward served food to the group with their own hands.

Nobles, high church dignitaries, including the Papal Nuncio, resplendent Generals and members of the royal family in magnificent court regalia watched their Catholic Majesties observe the age-old custom of Maundy Thursday in thus administering to the poor in rags and tatters.

No, one cannot find the identity of religion in ethics.

‘Religious experience’

To the apologist’s attempt to cover up the fact that religion, including God, is a class institution employing a class technique, and the similar attempt to identify religion with ethics, one may add the attempt, for equally apologetic reasons, to discover and single out a unique experience to be called the religious experience. This is a game which was very popular with psychologists a few years ago, and a perennial source of employment for bourgeois philosophers. To controvert this hunt for the ‘numinous’, one has but to think of the innumerable range of human experiences which have been the occasion for prayer. As Professor Schneider once put it wittily:

‘Any good mystic can get more varieties of religious experience than a “numinous” psychologist can talk about.’

How modern ‘technique’ arose

I now reformulate the question with which I began, why are people religious? in this form: under what conditions are modern religious ‘techniques’ employed?

Let us return to the example of the French Revolution. Through the thought of the plebeian ideologues of the French Revolution streams the clear bright light of a new dawn in which humanity, bursting at last the fetters of feudal church and state, seems free to work out its own destiny. Confidence in humanity, assurance in the full capacity of men to evolve purely secular ways of fulfilling their potentialities, is the motif of all their writings. The theory of progress, progress without peril, is the dominant philosophy of the bourgeoisie itself on the eve of the Revolution. Hatred of the Catholic church as the bulwark of feudalism is united with hatred of religion because it attributes impotence to man. Destroy the existing forms of oppression and man will be free to pursue a glorious destiny.

But then comes the French Revolution and victory for the bourgeoisie. And behind them looms the menacing proletariat. Fear of the proletariat drives the bourgeoisie into a union with the remnants of feudalism, into relinquishing their power to Bonapartism; the inevitable contradictions of capitalist economy appear: individual failures, economic crises, war. The bright new dawn of the plebeian revolutionary ideologues is followed by the cold light of a day of new forms of oppression, bloodshed, suffering, anxiety. Few are able to understand how these must necessarily follow from the antagonistic mode of production of feudalism. Man’s omnipotence seems an illusory dream. Perhaps man is doomed to defeat? It is precisely the most sensitive sons of the new bourgeoisie who in the cold light of day start a Catholic revival. The economic rehabilitation of the Church, its role in keeping the masses in subjection, combine with the loss of self-confidence by the bourgeoisie; anti-clericalism shows signs of old age and finally disappears.

Source of fetishism

What we see so clearly in comparing the dawn and day of bourgeois revolution is a dominant characteristic of the everyday life of all classes in the capitalist era. The basic process was analysed by Marx who laid bare the fetishism of commodities.

The process of production is not mastered by man but is his master; man’s labours appear to him as elemental natural forces beyond his control. Forces so independent of his own control appear to him inevitably as non-social forces. Failure, crises, war appear as though by the inexorable hand of fate. Neither will, nor foresight, nor effort are in any case commensurate with results: the worker toils and yet starves, and is thrown out of work to suffer still more, by forces which cannot but seem mysterious and evil to him; the bourgeois is equally in the hands of fate; there is no relation between his efforts and rewards; he is superstitious when he plays a hunch on the stock-market and wins, equally superstitious when business prospers or fails. Commodities, the products of man’s own efforts, rear up like monsters to overwhelm their makers; the social relations, which should be merely the way in which men are organised to produce the necessities of life, these social relations of employer-employee, state-people, appear to be the mysterious and eternal dictates of inexorable law. Men are frustrated at every turn by their own social relations. They desire security, but whatever they may have, this they cannot have. They desire peace and prosperity and work for it, only to find themselves fighting devastating wars which bring in their wake economic catastrophes. The potentialities of most men are never realised. Their intellectual, aesthetic, social faculties are warped at every turn, no matter what class they belong to. There is a basic dualism between social ethics and practical activity. Attempts to satisfy human needs or potentialities fail or are frustrated under capitalism. It is inevitable under these circumstances that so many fall victims to the religious ‘techniques’.

It is precisely for the sake of what they hold dearest that the believers go down on their knees. For life and love, for food and shelter, for the innumerable needs and desires and hopes and dreams. Often they pray for no specific reason, but it is precisely then that they are praying for all their reasons, for the whole complex of hurt and pain and anxiety left by their crushed social status as Lenin so correctly pointed out.

‘The quest for certainty’

One of the most familiar religious techniques – i.e., fraudulent embellishments – is to contrast the hazards of change with the sureties of the changeless. In the religious revivals that have accompanied every business depression, the churches have pointed out the ‘lesson’. As the Christian Times once phrased it: ‘the sad experience of the uncertainty of worldly riches ... disposed the hearts of many to sigh for the durable riches’. Another Baptist paper, a few weeks after the panic of 1873 declared that ‘the suffering incident to the present state of affairs’ would ‘lead thousands to turn from the fleeting things of time to the realities of eternity’. Essentially, this is what John Dewey has sought to generalise as ‘the religious character of the philosopher’s quest for certainty’.

The religiosity accompanying depressions is a very clear illustration of the fetishism induced by the capitalist mode of production. The fleetingness of the things of time and the uncertainty of worldly riches are put down, quite automatically, as proof of the impotence of man and the necessity of fortifying himself – by religious ‘techniques’. As suspicions of the real causes of depressions have permeated society, especially today when the crass contradiction of starvation and overproduction lies bare, there is a growing tendency to say little about the rise in religiosity during crises, which has been so regular that it is called the evangelistic index; the obvious causes of the evangelistic index must seem to churchmen an embarrassing commentary on the functions of religion at all times.

The fetishism of commodities, resulting from the contradictions of capitalism, this phenomenon of men’s own labours overwhelming them, stultifying them and frustrating their best potentialities, causing them to fall prey to superstitions, rituals and the entire mumbo-jumbo of religion, this cannot be done away with by those in power, the bourgeoisie, without destroying themselves as a class. Faced by the contradictions of capitalism, the bourgeoisie, as in the case of the Catholic revival of the French bourgeoisie, can only turn to religion to help them survive the necessary evils of their own economy. At the same time, however, from the proletariat ranks there arises the beginnings of a scientific economic system – socialism. Here the bourgeoisie and the workers confront each other, as irreconcilable enemies.

For the proletariat the socialist way out is irreconcilable with the religious way out. To take the religious way out, the road of consolation and reconciliation, is possible only as long as the proletariat shares with the bourgeoisie the illusions bred by capitalism in its ascendancy. Once, however, the proletarian vanguard has cut to the source of these illusions, has learned that the contradictions of capitalism are not given by fate, are not necessary evils, the main basis of religion becomes impossible for the proletarian movement – and for society as a whole.

Communism and religion

Will religion disappear under communism? Speaking of the fetishism of commodities, Marx says:

Such religious reflections of the real world will not disappear until the relations between human beings in their practical everyday life have assumed the aspect of perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations as between man and man, and as between man and nature. The life process of society, this meaning the material process of production, will not lose its veil of mystery until it becomes a process carried on by a free association of producers, under their conscious and purposive control.

But those religionists, like Reinhold Niebuhr, for example, who tacitly recognise that it is the fetishism of the evils, frustrations and perversions of capitalism which are at the root of modern religion, insist, nevertheless, that communism will not do away with religion. There will still be, they say, the problems of our relation to the universe and the personal problems which no social system can solve.

It is least likely that ‘our relation to the universe’ will be a problem for religious solution. This phrase is generally a professional subterfuge of ministers. Moreover, those who point to the influence of nature on the religion of peasants and farmers ignore the conditions under which such religion flourishes. As Marx points out, it was not the direct relation to nature which made agricultural peoples religious. The process by which agricultural peoples produced the material necessities of life was an immature one; their interaction with nature, that is, their tilling of the soil, was immature – in their ignorance of the sciences of fertilising, irrigating, accurate planting, and intensive agriculture, they were at the mercy of the elements. It is for this reason that their relations to nature were correspondingly immature, and led to fetishism of nature. A mature process of agricultural production leads to a mature attitude toward nature. Under capitalism, the farmers’ attitude toward nature is inextricably involved with the fetishism of commodities. The mysteries of nature are to the farmer nothing so puzzling as the mysteries of the market which holds him in subjection. His fear for his crops is a fear driven by need. I have seen a community of farmers come together in a time of drought to pray; they know all about the natural causes of rain, but still they are apparently praying for rain. Actually, however, they are praying not for rain, but to be saved from the consequences which will befall them if their crops fail. Suppose, now, that no serious economic consequences would follow upon the failure of the crops, would the farmers be praying for rain? Under communism, that part of the community which will raise the foodstuffs will feel no terror when faced by crop failures; a purposive and systematic organisation of production will provide for such contingencies; surpluses from other years will always be on hand. Under communism, the individual farmer will not be penalised for drought or plague of crops, as he is under capitalism. Will he then pray for rain? or need to fortify himself by religion under continual anxiety and fear of failure? It scarcely seems likely. As for the rest of us, including the religious masses, our relation to nature is not a religious problem today. Only a Niebuhr could envisage man’s relation to nature becoming a ‘religious problem’ under communism.

So far as the ‘personal problems’ or ‘the personal equation’ is concerned, the trick of connecting these questions with religiosity is quite as threadbare as all the other ‘techniques’. It consists in transferring the individual as he or she exists today – warped, twisted, undeveloped, enslaved – into the free communist future where such ‘egos’ and all their problems, frustrations, fixations, neuroses, etc, etc, might perhaps be for a brief while subjects for nursery rhymes but certainly never topics of serious discussion among adults. To take such problems seriously is to forget the ABC of Marxism which is materialist to the core and which affirms that man’s consciousness is determined by the material environment and not vice versa.

We Trotskyists are firmly convinced that capitalism is the last refuge of religion; and once capitalism is abolished this opium of the people as Marx called it, this ‘kind of spiritual corn-whisky’ as Lenin aptly branded it, will be cast into the garbage heap of history, where it belongs.


Last updated on: 20 August 2015