[Marxism] atheism and the left

Tom O'Lincoln suarsos at alphalink.com.au
Sat Oct 6 02:28:33 MDT 2007

Paul  Flewers makes some good points about Dawkins. Maybe there's also some 
value in posting what I wrote on the Australian LeftWrites site after 
watching the first half of Dawkins' documentary last May.

Maybe this is a good place to make a few comments on the Richard Dawkins 
program, of which I watched the first part last week. I went into it 
assuming I would be a firm Dawkins ally. And of course at one level I am; I 
obviously have no time for religious dogma.

But as I watched I felt more and more dissatisfied. He basically told us 
that religion was to blame for all the world's problems, whereas I think it's 
more the other way round. The problems are more the cause of religious 
feeling. People turn to faith for consolation because the world is a vale of 

Dawkins is perturbed that support for science seems to be slipping, and I 
agree this is perturbing. But he seems to think he can win that battle by 
explaining scientific principles to the benighted masses, and offering them 
a rationalist critique which shows how confused and contradictory the bible 
is. I don't think this is going to work, for reasons Marx spelt out.

In his most famous discussion of religion Marx wrote first of all that: "For 
Germany the criticism of religion is in the main complete". He wasn't 
interested in developing yet another rationalist critique of religion - that 
had already been done to death. He set himself some very different tasks. 
"The struggle against religion is .a fight against the world of which 
religion is the spiritual aroma." Marx was interested in the struggle to 
change society, not just change people's heads.

He wanted to understand why - despite all the logical critiques - people 
clung to faith. He explanation was that "Religious distress is at the same 
time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real 
distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a 
heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is 
the opium of the people."

So what is to be done? Now comes this utterly moving passage: "To abolish 
religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real 
happiness. The demand to give up illusions about the existing state of 
affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions. 
Criticism has torn up the imaginary flowers from the chain not so that they 
will wear the chain that is without fantasy or consolation, but so that they 
will throw it off and pluck the living flower. "

Just taking away people's religious illusions leaves them without 
consolation. That won't appeal to very many church-goers. We  need to offer 
them a way out.

Marx continues: "The task of history, therefore, once the world beyond the 
truth has disappeared, is to establish the truth of this world. The 
immediate task of philosophy, which is at the service of history, once the 
holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked, is to unmask 
self-estrangement in its unholy forms. Thus the criticism of heaven turns 
into the criticism of the earth, the criticism of religion into the 
criticism of law and the criticism of theology into the criticism of 

This is what's dangerously missing in Richard Dawkin's documentary. No 
wonder he can't figure out why people cling to religion.

For many of those American or Middle Eastern fundamentalists we find so 
unsettling, religion works. It makes them feel some touch of happiness in 
the vale of tears, in a way (capitalist) science doesn't. This is the 
challenge for us.


I got some replies, including some criticism. Anyone wanting to follow the 
arguments can go to this link, then either read the whole schmier or scroll 
down till you find my name.

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