Man makes religion; it does not make man

Contrary to received wisdom, atheists have diverse social, political and economic views, says Victor Billot. What they do have in common is not believing in God.

In a Faith and Reason column, published in the past few months, the writer - a pastor - started his discourse on religion by quoting Karl Marx as saying "Religion is the opiate of the people".

The problem is this quote is, strictly speaking, not factual.

Let's look at what Karl Marx actually wrote in his Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right (1844) in full, which reveals a very different and much more subtle meaning:

"Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. 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. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.

"To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions."

Marx describes religion here as the very real projection of human hopes and desires, an impulse for a better world.

But to him, religion is nonetheless a human creation that is holding back people from improving their real lives in the here and now, as they wait for "pie in the sky when you die" (that quote is from Joe Hill).

As Marx said: "Man makes religion, religion does not make man".

I think the pastor was trying to make a point that atheism equals Karl Marx equals Stalin equals dictatorship.

Which, of course, is nonsense, as atheists have diverse social, political and economic views.

What we have in common is not believing in God.

The problem for the pastor's argument is that if we apply the same standards to religion, we could say that it shares the "legacy of violence and repression" that he attributes to others.

Should we hold Jesus Christ responsible for the Inquisition, or the Salem witch trials, or the numerous other squalid and brutal atrocities carried out in the name of faith or under its cloak of justification?

What about Christian civilisation as encountered by the indigenous Americans or Tasmanians, or the victims of the slave trade?

I'm not seeking to rank historical horrors here.

But I suggest a good place to start is "first remove the beam from your own eye, and then you will see clearly enough to remove the speck from your brother's eye"(Matthew 7:5).

There is an arrogance behind the attitude that if you do not agree with religion, then you are doomed to misery and hopelessness, to being a lesser person.

That's the crude carrot and the stick method of religious indoctrination - "believe" and good things happen, don't "believe" and bad things happen.

What we need to give our lives "meaning", according to some recent religious correspondents to Faith and Reason, is a hotch-potch of ancient fables mangled through countless translations, featuring contradictory advice, incidents of appalling cruelty carried out by a loving God, spiced up with magic tricks and concluding with the impressive but frankly barking Book of Revelations.

Then comes the emotional manipulation.

One recent story trotted out is that of the bereft parent suffering unimaginable loss who is advised simply "to believe".

We could perhaps ask why a benevolent creator of the universe, who pays special and particular attention to all of us, would visit such suffering on his children in the first place.

Perhaps to teach us some kind of obscure lesson, or to make us better people?Great. Good one, God.

I have no issue with the healing power of love or compassion.

But these are truly human things, a complex result of our evolution, our emotional, intellectual and cultural make-up.

Another concern is the claimed scepticism and disillusionment of modern society.

Certainly modern society has disillusionment and scepticism, although a modest level of disillusionment and scepticism is not a bad thing.

It indicates experience of life, and perhaps a level of maturity.

If scepticism is a problem, there are plenty of examples of modern day societies where religion plays a defining role and scepticism is off the menu.

The government of Iran would be one, a model of toleration and spiritual values - or perhaps not.

The United States has a enormous number of people who believe in the Christian message, or at least their own curious interpretation of it, but it can't seem to organise basic medical care for tens of millions of their least wealthy citizens.

The meek may inherit the Earth, but they can't get an operation when they need it.

The way we act towards each other is important, but a good life is not dependent on religious belief.

Albert Einstein, who held moderate socialist views, wrote the following in an article on religion in the New York Times Magazine, on November 9, 1930.

"A man's ethical behaviour should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death."

Victor Billot is an atheist. He lives in Dunedin.


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