Why does religion, whatever it is, secular or theist, play such an important role in society? The “power to give and take life” resides in God, we are told by one of the religious institutions, the Catholic church. This is the first element that indicates where the shots come from, the term “power”: power is beyond the reach of ordinary mortals, they tell us.
By Roberto Laxe
Religion is the maximum expression of the alienation of human beings, who “transfer” their impotence to change the present-day to beings that only exist in their heads. But like every ideology, it has to be expressed in organizations to have real strength: the churches are the crystallization of the ideas that boil in the minds of human beings. That alienation arises from impotence either before nature, an uncontrollable force for human beings, or, under capitalism, the economy, the “invisible hand” of the market, which acts against human beings as any force of nature, outside the control of the human will.
In capitalism, alienation is complicated by the reification of social relations, dehumanizing them to the extreme. The market is the place (the paradise?) in which human beings interact, buying and selling their commodities and where the individual will is trapped. Reification, the attribution of human qualities to things, especially to one, money, is the end to which social relations are led. “Mr. Money is a powerful gentleman,” says the Spanish poet.
The power of religion rests on this tripod, reaching a depth in capitalism that only in this way can it be explained that it remains in a society that is capable of reaching the Moon, of solving most of the diseases that were the scourge of humanity for centuries. In a society that less than a hundred years ago life expectancy was of no more than 45 years old and today it is around 80. In a society that can turn the exploitation of human labor into a nightmare of the past. Well, a society that has that high level of rational development has not been able to abolish, to banish superstition, irrationality, and religion from people’s lives.
It is obvious that this impossibility is given by the structure of that society itself, where the need for religion arises since the lack of control of the economy is added to the uncontrollable feature of nature: economic crises, whose origin is unknown by the capitalists, occur independently of their will. From this “natural” origin of religion, rooted in human impotence before the unleashed nature and uncontrollable economy, the religious institutions in which they crystallize become natural allies of those who control the economy. The insistence on human “weakness” before powers that are above it comes out in defense of the ruling classes.
The inferiority imposed by a society divided into classes overlaps the “inferiority” inferred from its weakness against nature, creating a cocktail in human consciousness difficult to overcome mechanically. Only when the human beings face their needs as a social group can they lay the foundations for overcoming that inferiority and begin to become aware that there may be another alternative, other ways of doing things.
Protestantism, breaking with the link “power-priest-confession” and turning religion into a purely individual matter, took a step forward in this way of overcoming the supposed human weakness before higher powers, since these powers ceased to have, paraphrasing St. Augustine, their “earthly city” (the church and the priest), to stick to the “spiritual city” (god).
But Protestantism is still a religion that tended to secularism, although it is not secular. It kept telling the population that there are forces that human beings cannot control and that they have a name, god (whatever it is and whatever religion it is). It had opened the door to bourgeois, individualistic, personal rationality, but it still had the same limits as any religion: the alienation of the human being into higher beings.
This takes us directly to the subject of power. Believing in an omnipotent God, or transferring the power to change things to individuals who, for whatever reason, have come out of everyday poverty, sanctifying them (the essence of the current lay religions, of which sport is its ultimate expression), is the demonstration of the impotence of society to modify the conditions of exploitation and oppression.
They tell us, “God is the only one who can give and take life away,” and with that they tell us that we are lower creatures, unable to do anything important that is not to worship the god of the day, or the lay saint, dreaming of the life that God promises us or the one those saints have. But “dreams, are not more than dreams,” and while we wait for that life or dream of living it, exploitation is maintained.
Marx said that religion is the “sigh of the oppressed,” and so it is. It is the dream of another life different from the gray and haggard everyday life. But he also said something else, “it is the opium of the people” … not in the vulgar sense that Stalinism has given it as if it were something that simply dazes people. It is more complex, that is why it is so difficult to fight religion, the lay one included, and of which Stalinism is one of its variants: it is the “opium the people” because it is the “sigh of the oppressed.” The poor sighs/dreams with another world through religion and in this way stops fighting to change this oppressive and exploitative world.
The power of religion and its institutions has this double component: in the minds of the people, built from the social relations of production themselves, and its concrete power as an institution, linked, as it could not be otherwise, to the state apparatus, which gives “earthiness” to what seems to be in the minds of human beings. It all comes down to the word “power” that is unique. It is the power of the ruling classes to maintain their domination, from which they extract the wealth that defines them as the ruling class.
Only by breaking with the “sigh” and “opium” of the people, they will see that power can be in their hands. Religious thought is for a Marxist the main obstacle in the way of winning the working class for the revolution.