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There Is No God
Replacing religion with atheism would improve society. A modest proposal by EAMONN McCANN.
Eamonn McCann, 30 Mar 2000
He s an offensive shit! I m so angry!
Horseshit, he s talking horseshit! Anybody can see it s horseshit!
The men gripped by moral panic and reduced to near-incoherence were a well-known economist and an Irish Times journalist. Their agitation, on a Sunday morning radio discussion programme, had been sparked by my suggestions that Catholic teaching on the Eucharist carried intimations of cannibalism, and that atheists are better placed than believers in religion to understand religion s social role.
These had seemed to me no more than common-sense observations. A ritual involving the symbolic consumption of human flesh and the drinking of human blood which the Catholic Church insists is not symbolic at all but, somehow, real does carry intimations of cannibalism.
And a person who understands that religion is generated from within human society is better qualified to discuss the social role of religion than someone who begins from a belief that religious phenomena emanate from a dimension beyond the range of human understanding.
Indeed, a more rigorously logical person than myself might wonder how anyone who believes in the transcendent nature of religious experience could, or would wish to, discuss religious matters in mundane terms.
What had caused the splutter in the studio was the fact that I had talked about religion not in any extreme or calculatedly offensive way but in the same tone and context as I might speak of any other ideological formation or aspect of human experience the Fianna Fail party, trade unionism, nationalism, sport.
In the circles in which I move, few find this offensive. I have mentioned before that huge numbers of Irish people today, particularly young people, seem to take the same attitude to religion as they do to the legend of the Loch Ness Monster. If there s something in it, that s OK. And if there s nothing in it, that s OK, too. Notwithstanding this progress, it s evident there are many, including economists and Irish Times journalists, who still recoil from irreverence.
Reverence has a place in the world. Indeed, the world is the only proper object of reverence. Our spirits are moved by natural events. A total eclipse of the sun last year was widely referred to as magical and mysterious , and so it was, in a poetical sort of way. But in the prosaic world which we have to make sense of in order to live, and impressive as the spectacle of an eclipse must be in places less covered than Ireland by cloud, there is no magic or mystery about it. An eclipse is a perfectly natural and precisely predictable phenomenon.
It didn t always seem so. Once, only fantastical explanations seemed adequate. Hindus believed that an eclipse was caused by a demonic figure, Rahu, devouring the sun. In some pagan societies, it was thought that an eclipse marked the moment when an old sun died, its energy spent, and a new sun emerged to shine life upon earth. In some Christian societies, an eclipse was taken as a portent of disaster to come, even of the end of the world.
We know better now. It s the shadow of the moon on the face of the sun. We know that it s science, not religion, which explains the world, and the worlds around us.
Religion emerged as an expression of human helplessness in the face of vast, seemingly inexplicable power. The wind, the waves, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, thunder, storm, drought and deluge, plague and pestilence primitive human beings were utterly at the mercy of them all, unable to understand, much less control, the forces unleashed. So they attributed all this terrifying power to gods , whom they sought to placate.
No god made Man. Man made gods.
Eventually, in accordance with the law of supply and demand, specialists emerged in interpreting the whims and wishes of the imagined gods. And thus, priests.
Priests as a distinct layer or group emerged into (Eurasian) history in Mesopotamia between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago, when the productive forces developed to the point where a regular surplus of foodstuff was possible. The granaries and other foodstores and those who controlled them were invested with an aura of power, commanding praise and obedience from the mass of the people. These were the first churches, the controllers the first priests. The ornate rituals and quasi-magical practices which developed over centuries removed the operation from the areas of life which it was permissible for ordinary people to intrude on.
Institutionalised religion thus emerged simultaneously with the class divisions attendant on the possibility of plenty. Religion offered a mystifical explanation not only of natural phenomena but of social relations too. It mystified the process whereby the many were lured to collude in the robbery of their substance by the few.
In class-structured society, human beings have felt helpless not just before nature but in the face of social power beyond their control. The slave owner s rod on the back of the slave, the power of the monarch over the mass of the people, the capitalist s theft from the worker of the product of her labour, always, everywhere, religions have proclaimed that this pattern of existence, stunting the human psyche and alienating us even from our own inner selves, is the natural order of things, god-given, that to rebel against it is to defy god s will.
Religion continued, meanwhile, to provide fantastical explanations for otherwise inexplicable individual experience. We know now that it s viruses and bacteria which cause disease, not the wrath of gods, that vaccines and antibiotics are the remedies, not sacrifice or prayer for a miracle. Science advances, and religion retreats towards its last redoubts at the edges of existence, procreation and death.
Religion isn t always or even usually apprehended thus, as directly oppressive. Religion has also provided solace to the poor and ease for the suffering by holding out the prospect of joy in a better world when life s done.
Surveying the wreckage of the ideals of the French Revolution, Napoleon put it plain: What is it which makes the poor man take it for granted that on my table at each meal there is enough to sustain a family for a week? It is religion, which says to him that in another life I shall be his equal, indeed that he has a better chance of being happy there than I .
Religion can also be a vehicle for protest. The idea of a being, infinitely superior in power and glory to mere mortals as we scurry through our allotted years, can lead to acceptance that this is how god ordered our estates. But, depending on prevailing circumstance, it might lead just as well to a perception of all people as equally precious in god s sight, and thus point towards a conclusion that god smiles on revolt. It is this duality which has made religion enduringly pernicious.
Marx didn t dismiss religion as the opium of the people . What he wrote was that religion is an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of the heartless world and the soul of soulless circumstance. It is the opium of the people .
The reason for seeking to extirpate religion from society is that it s rooted in ignorance, fear and oppression. Introducing in 1918 the decree which for the first time in all history guaranteed religious freedom in Russia, Trotsky declared:
The complete abolition of religion will be achieved only when there is a fully developed socialist system . . . It can be attained only under social relations which are free from mystery, that are thoroughly lucid and do not oppress. Religion translates the chaos of nature and the chaos of social relations into the language of fantastical images. Only through the abolition of this earthly chaos can we end forever its religious