Religion and Materialism

Religion and Materialism

For materialists, all animals, and indeed all vegetables and minerals, are no more than a manifestation of the same thing, namely matter. The development of the material world up to humans can be understood as a progression from inorganic to organic, from living to thinking. Humanity, according to Bakunin’s God and the State, is the last and supreme development of animality, because humans alone are able to think and rebel, and construct the ideal (world of ideas). Furthermore, the materialist asserts that all ideas must result from the human brain, which as a biological organ is firmly based in the material world. It is this assertion (when added to a view of anarchism defined by real struggle) that allows us to conceive the social revolution and communist society, not as an unreachable utopia, but as a real goal.

For Bakunin, “the idea of God implies the abdication of human reason and justice. It is the most decisive negation of human liberty, and necessarily ends in the enslavement of mankind – both in theory and practice”. “If God is, man is a slave; now man can and must be free; thus God does not exist”. Furthermore, “if God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him”. According to Bakunin, it is not enough just to be in opposition to orthodox religion, but to the whole spectrum of religion as far as idealism. To the idealists, ‘God’ is just the name given to all that seems grand, good, or beautiful, but which exists external to humanity. Here, the God of theology is replaced with the God of metaphysics, and it is the sanctity of these ideas which is worshiped.

[Slight digression here. Sometimes we hear the ‘Green Movement’ talk about the arrogance of humanity in reference to the destruction of the environment. This is in conflict with materialism and anarchism, because it is capitalism that is causing the destruction of the environment for the needs of profit. What the Greens often do is abstract the Earth as an organism e.g. ‘Gaia’ – divining life over humanity, which as an idea is somehow placed external to our own existence, and blames mankind rather than the ruling classes. This is falling into the same trap as Bakunins idealists, making a god out of the harmony of nature.]

The idealists neglect the problem of the existence of God, and condemn the misdeeds of religion, but look to antiquity and universality instead, where religion is seen as a sentiment of the whole world in all peoples, past and present -so we have to accept it even if we can’t explain it.

This is one of the problems many people have with religion. Before we even start to argue against it, it seems to occupy a lofty position above other theories because it can’t, by its own definition, be proved or disproved. We would never allow such an argument to be used for a political theory. We would demand an analysis of any political theory to be based on rational argument – why should religion be different?

Doctrine, whether based in theological or metaphysical ideas, is tied up with the concepts of liberty and authority, since we are required either to accept either the authority of a priest, or at least an abstract idea of what is morally right which is external to humans. Either way we lose our liberty to be free-thinking individuals. In contrast, materialism sets us free from all but the constraints of natural law, as studied by science. Bakunin’s view of natural law (which is a bit dodgy in my opinion) includes not only the laws of physics, but also what he sees as social laws – for example, that power corrupts individuals. According to Bakunin, once these laws are understood by everyone as individuals, the question of liberty will be entirely solved. There will be no need for political organisation, nor legislation. This view also recognises that science can never be more than a study of general principle, and real life is about individuals which science cannot, and should not, be used to try and understand.

Modern Religion

Bakunin wrote God and the State in 1870-2. In the 20th century, we are in a period where science is very much the dominant ‘religion’ of capitalism. This is as a result of the strength of materialist theories of human existence e.g. theories of evolution, origins of the universe in physics, which must be seen as the most plausible explanation of our existence. Religion might now appear to be taking a back seat, in some countries more than others, but it would be all too easy to ignore its influence in modern society. Religion has fought back on many fronts.

Firstly we have the reassertion of orthodoxy in the fundamentalist forms of Christianity and Islam, for example. Secondly we see the redefinition of orthodoxy in an attempt to recuperate ideas of science into religion – thus we see the denial of the ‘creation myth’ and increased tolerance to previous aberrations such as homosexuality/ women priests. Thirdly there is the rejection of orthodoxy paralleled by the rise of religious cults where anyone is free to define a new theology and church. Fourthly there is the redefinition of religion in terms of spirituality without any god as such, which is perhaps closest to the idealism opposed by Bakunin. Lastly we see the rejection of religion, but in its place is substituted the use of pseudo-scientific method in the explanations of the so-called paranormal. There is undoubtedly an increase in popular acceptance of astrology, numerology, psychic power, magic, alien abductions (many examples of these have been easily debunked by the rigorous analysis in the Sceptic tradition.).

All of the above contradictions are possible under capitalism, and they happily coexist in practice, as they are not ultimately a threat apart from to bourgeois science. Quite the opposite of being any threat to capitalism, they are only an obstacle to the materialist approach which accepts only human reality, and serve to confuse and divide us in our ideas. Capitalism thrives on diversity of ideas whether true or not, as ideas are the basis of new markets, and capitalism is not limited to markets which reflect real experience. It is the duty of anarchists to oppose religion and assert scientific materialism against both religion and pseudo-science.

Re-Asserting Materialism

Many so called rational people must see anarchists as nutters – at the very best hopeless idealists who naively see the destruction of capitalism by revolution as a real possibility – even if those same people agree with us how bad a place the world is under capitalism. Members of the ACF are probably likened in many people’s minds to the followers of cults who are being deluded by charismatic leaders(!). Maybe this view of being ‘different’ is also a reason for the tolerance of non-conformist religions in the wider anarchist movement. So what makes us different from the others? After all isn’t one belief system as good as any other. Well no, we don’t agree with fascism – but astrology, it’s just a harmless bit of fun, isn’t it? People have a right to their religious beliefs, don’t they?

The real difference is in our materialist analysis. As Bakunin once said (if you believe the man), “Idealists of all schools […] are much offended when they are told that man, with his boundless aspirations, is, like all else existing in this world, nothing but matter, only a product of vile matter.” This idea of material existence (and nothing more) is the basis for much of our politics, our world view, and maybe even our feeling of personal responsibility in fighting for the end of the present system. After all, who else are we waiting for?