All religious belief symbolises the immaturity of humanity by placing all human activity on a mythical alter where faith overrules logic and reasoning. In other words, explaining and refuting religion isn’t just a philosophical exercise; its a practical necessity.
The fundamental idea of religion is a belief in the persistence of life after death. Originally, and in essence, throughout, religion is a belief in the existence of supernatural beings, and the observance of rites and ceremonies in order to avert their anger or gain their goodwill.
There are two ways of opposing religion. One is to refute it as untrue, to show that there are no rational grounds, because there is no convincing evidence, for believing either in “the persistence of life after death” or in “the existence of supernatural beings”. This is the approach of the Secularists and Freethinkers and of course what they say, is true, but this leaves the impression that religion is merely an erroneous belief It leads to concentrating on refuting religious beliefs as such in a purely ideological battle while leaving everything else, including class society and capitalist relations of production, unchanged.
The second way to oppose religion is to explain its origins, development, and role in materialist terms as an ideological product of the changing material economic and social conditions under which people have lived. This approach reveals religion to be a reflection of people’s lack of control over the conditions governing the production of their material means of survival and that it survives precisely because people lack this control.
On this analysis, opposition to religion cannot be separated from opposition to the economic and social conditions that give rise to it. Religion won’t disappear simply because of Secularists and Freethinkers, or for that matter Socialists, refute it as untrue. It will only disappear when people are in a position to control the production of their means of life. This requires the end of the class ownership of the means of production and the end of production for the market with a view to profit and their replacement by common ownership and production directly and exclusively for use.
In other words, religion cannot disappear until the conditions of which it is an ideological reflection disappear. Criticism of religion leads, or ought logically to lead, to criticism of society.
Faith is the last refuge of a believer. Religious faith, however, would only make sense if what was believed in were plausible. Neither the existence of a God nor life after death are plausible, though faith in them undoubtedly offers solace to many. It can make the unbearable seem bearable. But why should an all-loving God allow so much suffering, so much pain in this world – including the so-called "Acts of God" – earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and the rest? If God really did exist, we have no reason for supposing that he cares for us.
For some in recent years, religion has combined with New Age beliefs, largely at the expense of the traditional religions whose emphasis on personal guilt, sexual repression and the inferiority of women have become unacceptable. This pick and mix approach can combine elements from the New Testament, Buddhism, psychoanalysis, paganism, astrology and various other bits of the occult. So why, the the persistence of religious belief?
The socialist analysis of religion derives from our basic materialism (not in the acquisitive sense, but how we view the production of wealth in society and the sort of ideas it gives rise to). Historical materialism traces how religions have evolved, from their beginnings in ancestor worship and private property in primitive societies, to established social institutions. Marx hit a number of nails on the head when he described the social psychology of religion:
"Religion is the sigh of the oppressed, the feeling of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless circumstances. 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. The demand to give up the illusions about their condition is a demand to give up a condition that requires illusion. The criticism of religion in therefore the germ of the criticism of the valley of tears whose halo is religion."
For the materialist, in other words, society is not really under human control and humans really are at the mercy of blind, impersonal forces – in ancient times the forces of nature, in the modern world the economic forces of capitalism. Under capitalism, people feel, rightly, that they are governed by forces they can't control but attribute this, wrongly, to forces operating from outside the world of experience. Churches of all types are then at hand for the sustaining of fear and superstition. For the socialist alternative to our lives being controlled by impersonal forces, we must bring about a society in which humans consciously control the forces of production.
It is on this basis that we can say, rather than being abolished, religion can be expected to (as Engels put it in another context) "wither away". And it can be seen that the socialist case against religion differs from the usual humanist position: there are rationalist superstitions as well as religious. For humanists, criticism of religion is a process towards the eventual "triumph of reason". But they ignore the material circumstances which give rise to superstition:
"Consequently, in his worship of the 'Idea', the bourgeois freethinker is, like the Christian, attributing miraculous powers to the figments of men's brains" (Socialism and Religion, Socialist Party pamphlet, 1911,).
Capitalism has many opiates to offer the unwary. Reject the pedlars, reject the product, but above all, reject a society which can create such an unhealthy psychological dependency. On the new basis of material security and social co-operation individuals can gain a sense of meaning in their lives and hope for a future free from the dead hand of religious belief and tradition.