Religion: The Sigh of the Oppressed Creature

To be delivered on Monday the 7th of September, Meeting Room Two at Victoria University as part of ‘Religion Week’

Welcome to the Workers Party contribution to Victoria religion week!

We’re not starting this meeting off with a prayer, but before you go we will be passing a plate and taking up a collection.

Some of you here today might be hopefully expecting a communist speaker to scornfully dismiss religion in five words as “ the opium of the people” so we can all get away off to the pub nice and early.

I’m not the best person to do that for you. My initial experience of religion was very positive. I was brought up in a comfortable middle class home with a quaint little Anglican church four minutes walk around the corner. When you got there and walked inside, it was a cool dark soothing place, buttressed by reassuringly strong wooden beams. At the end of the building, where your eyes naturally looked up towards, the sun lit up a beautiful red and gold stained glass window behind the altar. The local vicar of my childhood was a dignified Yorkshireman who’d been awarded the Military Cross for some act of valour. He delivered amusing sermons, several of which I still remember. The basic message was very comforting. You worked away all your life and behaved yourself and then, when you finally got very old and tired, you’d be taken up to heaven to be looked after for ever and ever. It seemed like a pretty good deal. So on Sunday we dressed in our best and went to church and thought uplifting thoughts and then came home to have the best meal of the week, a huge satisfying roast dinner. All very peaceful, no one got hurt or killed except the hogget. So you might say, I got dealt about as good a hand as you get in the religious department.

My dad was never really into it. When once pressed to say the grace before Sunday dinner he said:

“ ok, ok- tweet tweet tweet tweet, thank god for what we’re about to eat.”

I only recall my dad attending church once, for my confirmation. At that service, as coincidence would have it, the vicar delivered a stinging sermon denouncing infrequent church goers. My dad triumphantly seized on this as a personal affront and declared he’d never come to church again, a promise he kept right up until fourteen years later, when his RSA mates carried him in and out of it in a box.

Although he was no Marxist, I think my dad would have been happy enough to waste no more than five words on religion.

But religion will not be dismissed so swiftly. It has been and currently continues to be a signifigant factor in human society.

So many of humankind’s most splendid poetic, musical and architectural achievements are inseparable from religious fervour and inspiration. Countless acts of inspiring heroism and devotion have taken place in the name of religion. As have countless acts of the most vicious barbarity and cruelty.

Like everything else in the world, religion is a thing of contradictions. And like everything else in the world, human religions are in a process of coming into being and going out of being.

The views of Marx on spirituality have much more depth than the little quote about opium. That line is from Marx’s:

Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, which is well worth reading in full.

The sentence before the quote indicates where Marx is coming from; he says:

“ Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

Incidentally, when Marx wrote that text, opium had rather different connotations than it does today. The drug was in many places a legally available important medicine, used as a painkiller, sedative, and cholera treatment.

Anyway, metaphors aside, what do we understand religion to be?

I describe religion as an organized approach to spirituality or emotional reflection, which offers meaning to the practitioner’s experiences of life. This is usually through reference to a being or power or eternal truth outside humankind and the material world. Religion may be expressed through ritual, meditation, art forms and other individual or collective activity.

More elegantly, in the passage already quoted, Marx says:

“Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality.”

The word ‘religion’ is also used to describe any significant preoccupation acting as a person’s sheet anchor in the scheme of things. The description of rugby as a religion, frequently offered tongue in cheek, has been around for many decades and been subject to serious academic studies.

My own religion is long distance running. On a nice clear day, after a few miles, everything seems to fall into place and make sense and I feel completely at home in the cosmos. My religion has many adherents. Google up ‘running as a religion’ and see the 59,000,000 listings.

Where does the traditional heavy duty god in heaven religion come from?

Human philosophy offers two basic opposing views on understanding the world, and thus, the origin of religion.

Idealist philosophy asserts the primacy of spirit to nature, and is supportive of accepting religion as having supernatural origin.

Materialist philosophy regards nature as primary, and religion as human created. For materialism, thoughts are reflections of matter outside of mind, which existed before and independently of thought.

In terms of human understanding, Marxists are materialists who recognize that nature is primary and therefore the act comes before the thought. The notion of the taste of a fruit and the concept of taste and touch can only come after a fruit has been picked and eaten.

Marxists are dialectical materialists, who recognize the interconnection of movement and matter. This view realises that such concepts as ‘freedom’ are not eternal truths, but concepts only able to arise at a certain development of human civilization. When primitive humankind hunted and gathered in communal equality, there was not and could not be any concept of ‘freedom’. The idea of freedom can only arise and be understood in relation to its opposite – enslavement.

In a similar way, the idea of a harvest god could only arise at a point where humans had evolved the ability to sow crops and, with those early amateurish attempts, reason to worry about crop failure. With the development of agriculture to the extent that crop failure is controlable, our forbears harvest gods became redundant.

In his work : The End of German Classical Philosophy Fredrick Engels wrote:

“For dialectical philosophy nothing is final, absolute, sacred. It reveals the transitory character of everything and in everything. Nothing can endure before it except the uninterrupted process of becoming and of passing away, of endless ascendancy from the lower to the higher.”

Contrast that to the central tenet of the Christian faith which concludes the Lord’s Prayer:

“…for Thine is the Kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever, amen.”

Permanent control of everything by one invisible supreme monarch – a poetic and comprehensive sounding answer, but the antithesis of how modern science understands the universe to operate.

I can recall as a child repeating for thine is the kingdom many times; today that creed has much less currency than it used to. Established churches in New Zealand have declined, although the few in ascendancy tend to be more and more fiercely fundamentalist.

Although we are more and more a secular society, authorities are not above using the mystique of the Christian church to maintain their rule.

A recent small but typical example; at a trial of Peace Action Wellington protestors, police prosecutors indignantly made much of the fact that anti imperialist slogans had been scrawled “on the wall of a CHURCH”, as though that made our chalked graffiti qualitatively worse.

As well as that sort of thing, the remnants of fundamentalist religion impose an undeniable brake on people’s struggle for a better life.

When I was a little boy one of our Sunday school songs went:

“The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate

God made them high and lowly and ordered their estate”

That controlling reactionary message remains very much a part of the fundamentalist package. Inequality is ‘natural, so don’t knock it.

And, of course, the Word of God is applied selectively. Some wealthy people attend church on Sunday, but, over the 2000 years since Jesus told the rich to sell up everything and give it to the poor there havn’t really been a lot of takers have there?

What then is the attitude of the Workers Party to religion?

We study dialectical materialism and try to use that science to understand and change the world around us.

We also agree with Lenin’s advice that religion be held a private affair so far as the state is concerned. Religious societies should have no grants from or connection with any governmental authority. All people should be free to profess any religion or no religion, there should be no discrimination on account of anyone’s religious convictions or atheism.

Like much of Lenin’s other sound advice, these views have been utterly disregarded by some who claimed to follow him. In many situations religion has been repressed the name of communism and socialism. I don’t say that this repression should be excused; I do see how it may have originated. The political history of all religions is overwhelmingly one of clergy siding with the rich against the working poor. That said, the main products of crude leftist religious repression have been religious martyrs and discrediting of socialism.

That is why Lenin originally argued in his farsighted booklet Socialism and Religion:

“Why do we not declare in our Programe that we are atheists? Why do we not forbid Christians and other believers in God to join our party? would be stupid to think that, in a society based on the endless repression and coarsening of the worker masses, religious predudices could be dispelled by purely propaganda methods. It would be bourgeois narrow mindedness to forget that the yoke of religion that weighs upon mankind is merely a product and reflection of the economic yoke within society. No number of pamphlets and no amount of preaching can enlighten the proletariat if it is not enlightened by its own struggle against the dark forces of capitalism. Unity in this really revolutionary struggle of the oppressed class for the creation of a paradise on earth is more important to us than unity of proletarian opinion on paradise in heaven.

The revolutionary proletariat will succeed in making religion a really private affair, so far as the state is concerned. And in this political system, cleansed of medieval mildew, the proletariat will wage a broad and open struggle for the elimination of economic slavery, the true source of the religious humbugging of mankind.”

Well, we have a non revolutionary proletariat in New Zealand right now, but as dialectics teach us, nothing stays the same forever, and in the appropriate conditions everything can turn into its opposite. Let’s start with this empty plate.


  1. i hold no stock in religion. A cult by any other word. Faith i can wrap my mind around, but religion gives people the excuse to sin and for that eligion to me is the biggest sin of all. I do love your writing though.

  2. Thanks writrsblok. I wish you were editing Salient. I posted them this article with first option of publication but didn’t get an acknowledgment of them receiving it.

  3. That Was a very interesting serman who delivered it?
    Isn’t it funney that you will never hear a sermon from the fundermentalist of Jesus throwing over the tables and kicking out the money changers from the temple.

    I have noticed that various churches are very selective about what they preach. Wouldn’t you agree?

  4. John Edmundson says:

    It’s a talk by Don Franks.

  5. What would you (or WP) say to the notions that:-

    (1)”Religion and science must agree if they don’t there is something wrong either the science or the religion”

    (2)”It is first priority to educate women as they will be the first teachers of the next generation”

  6. Religion and science are travelling in opposite directions. Science is based on investigation of the material world, religion is based in faith in an imagined world.
    I think there is “something wrong” with religion; although as I tried to outline in my talk, religion was an inevitable part of mankind’s development.

    “First teaching”, by which I imagine you to mean parenting, should be done equally by male and female parents. In some cases – gay adoption- there may be two male parents.

  7. What I mentioned in the last post were the tennets of the Bahai faith who want to synchronise science and religion.

    Normaly I am very skeptical about the mythology in religion but in new religions like the above mentioned I think they could be reconciled when religion has dumped all the myths.

    I am reading an interasting aside in Homer’s Iliad.
    It is before Archilles goes back into battle the Trojans. the second in commander was Eudorus his mother was unmarried, but it is said that her dances had caught the eye of the god Hermes and she bore him a child.

    I have read similar claims of virgin births in the Egyptian Horus cults, the Mythraic and the Christian religions. I seems to me young girls get in the family way and invent a ‘god’ who has seduced them and it somehow becomes socially acceptable.

    That is why I am very cynical towards religion.

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