Atheism Is Not Enough: A Socialist Dare to Religion and Science

By Paula Cerni
April 16, 2008

In the Beginning Were Our Practices

A new offensive is under way in the cosmic war between faith and reason. Four formidable horsemen – Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens – are leading the charge. [1] Religion, these and other New Atheists claim, is irrational, and those of us who care for the truth must not let its falsehoods go unchecked.

But although truth is a worthy cause, the New Atheists’ strategy rests on a misguided approach to religion. Religion involves practices as well as beliefs. The New Atheists begin from the beliefs and take them to inform the practices. They therefore aim their fire at the mightiest of all false beliefs, the belief in God Almighty.

The scientific, materialist approach should begin from the practices. Practices inform beliefs, since beliefs that matter are always practical. But practices are never false – they occur and in that sense they are true; they are real and in that sense they are rational. They are taken up by living agents in historical settings. In that sense, religious and scientific practices are much alike: they are made by real people in response to their circumstances.

Instead of illuminating this wider, richer, practical life of religion, the New Atheists’ focus on beliefs tends to narrow the issue down to a problem of dim minds. What seems to follow is that religion is for stupid or deranged people. For example, on learning that Hurricane Katrina strengthened the faith of 80% of survivors, Harris laments ‘the boundless narcissism and self-deceit of the saved’ [2] without exploring why normal people would turn to God when utterly abandoned by society. Similarly, Dawkins’ discussion of the South Pacific cargo cults mocks their irrationality but lacks even an ounce of social critique.

On inspection, then, the New Atheists are unlikely to win a decisive victory. They engage their enemy chiefly as a set of superstitions to be fought with evidence and logic; but religion is much more than a creature of the mind – it is the palpitating organ of a breathing, living species of society, the heart of a brute, the belly of a monster. To understand the function of this social organ we need to closely study its host’s anatomy, habitat, and historical evolution. Perhaps then we will discover how to wrestle it into extinction.

How Modern Religion Earns Its Afterlife

The advent of modernity – the age of science and industry, of reason organized, developed, and applied on a grand and systematic scale – appeared to deal a mortal blow to religion. But religion adapted to the age by continually shredding off dead flesh – mercilessly slashing practices and sacrificing beliefs – and growing a secular second skin. Who now cares for, or even remembers, the dogmas that forced the Massachusetts Puritan Anne Hutchinson into exile? Americans might still revere religion, but not deeply enough to punish heresy with banishment. They have wisely learned to observe the secular rule of religious freedom.

Today, secularization continues to fit religion to fast-changing social mores, shaping it, for example, into bland therapy, vacuous eating and clothing obsessions, or pressure group politics – the same patterns followed by society at large. What was once holy – lifelong marriage – becomes profane, and what was once persecuted – homosexual unions – is eventually blessed. Though fundamentalists of all faiths try to resist, the pressure to evolve is irresistible.

Yet modernity has not bred a fully secularized society. On the contrary, it has hatched one religious revival after another, from the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to the recent rise of New Age religions and the current metamorphoses of Islam. Paradoxically, then, hand in hand with its secularizing effects, modernity performs a veritable resurrection of religious belief and practice.

Such revivals tell us that religion in its contemporary form is not an evolutionary relic of our primal psyche, as some New Atheists maintain, but a product of present conditions. Time and again, modern religion earns a new lease of life, the wages of a hellish social system that sins against its own values – that preaches wealth but produces poverty, teaches tolerance but inflicts war, promises education but fosters ignorance, praises democracy but violates all human rights. If man’s extremity is God’s opportunity, our society offers religion plenty of extreme horrors on which to feed.

Fear and Trembling in the Kingdom of Mammon

Religion, Stendhal said, is founded on the fear of the many and the cleverness of the few. However, this fear is not the existential terror of death Michel Onfray shrugs off with hedonistic nonchalance in his Atheist Manifesto. [3] It might be hard for successful philosophers to sympathize, but most people’s anxieties in today’s society are very down-to-earth. Theirs is not a fear of death, but a fear for their own lives and the lives of loved ones, a fear enhanced, as Lenin argued, by the blind force of capitalism: ‘a blind force because it cannot be foreseen by the masses of the people – a force which at every step in the life of a proletarian and a petty proprietor threatens to bring and does bring him “sudden”, “unexpected”, “accidental” bankruptcy, ruination, transformation into a pauper or into a prostitute, or leads to hungry death – there is the root of modern religion’. [4]

The most vulnerable populations, as social scientists Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart have shown, are the most religious. [5] Plagued by endemic social ills and insecurities, they hope and pray for supernatural relief. Religion in this form is the placebo of the people. Additionally, in its organized form, it is a potent folk remedy, applied most vigorously where capitalism hurts the most – in developing nations where rural traditions give way to the man-eat-man conditions of the urban jungle; and in the USA, where poor public services, lack of employment and housing rights, and a migrant economy generate a dire need for community self-help. In these societies, even the smallest religious organizations provide close fellowship; flowers and counselling for the bereaved; or free breakfasts; while the largest, the professional charities and the megachurches, supply a range of services well beyond anything underfunded governments can offer.

By contrast, in many European countries, capitalism is softened by protective legislation and state provision of social services, which, while still very deficient, remain the best in the world. Universal, high-quality, publicly-funded healthcare, for example, is a far more effective help to the sick than Christian charity and prayers could ever be. Consequently Europe, which is closest to this ideal, is the most secular continent on earth. [6]

Contemporary religion, then, is an organ for soothing the aches of social injury. It is, as Marx said, the ‘heart of a heartless world’, a heart that seeks the real light of human love, support, joy, purpose, and universality, but can only find its pale reflection in spectral entities, or in the warm but artificial glow of the congregation. It is, as Marx also said, ‘the fantastic realization of the human being because the human being has attained no true reality’. [7]

Thou Shalt Sanctify the System

Of course, religion also assists the clever few who exploit it. It helps social climbers reach influential friends, it provides cover for corrupt pastors and perverted priests, and it underwrites the elites’ most inhumane policies – from female subjection to global war.

Even without conscious manipulation, however, religion easily reopens the very social wounds it seeks to heal. It cannot be otherwise, because religion is an organic part of our diseased way of life. The more deep-seated it is, the more infected it becomes. And so, for example, America’s religion is tainted by the nation’s extreme individualism. The same uncontrollable forces of social change that push faith communities together also pull them apart, driving members from one city, church or belief to another, so that, in the end, they are left with no guidance except their own personal consciences, and with Jefferson they must conclude: ‘I am of a sect by myself’. Thus faith reproduces today’s self-centred culture.

Similarly, while faith is supposed to unite, American believers faithfully divide themselves along economic, cultural, and racial lines, into churches for the rich and churches for the poor, churches for Korean speakers and churches for Spanish speakers, black churches and white churches; etc. Thus congregation reinforces segregation.

Finally, while contemporary American religion is an admission that the market cannot provide for human needs, it also performs the sickest acts of market worship. Aping capitalism, religious firms often poach each other’s business, build their own emporiums of entertainment and merchandise, and preach what they practice by selling the ‘gospel of prosperity’. Yet these organizations and their members are no hypocrites. On the contrary, they are sincere believers in a two-faced economic system. So ardent is their belief, and so powerful this system, that they assume God himself sponsors it. Thus American religion serves Mammon, the true lord of this earth. [8]

Losing Our Religion, Winning Our Science

But the New Atheists say very little about this. They conceive of science and religion as competing worldviews, forgetting, for the most part, that both are also historical human practices. They raise the banner of pure reason without examining in any detail how reason has evolved under conditions that were, and still are, far from pure and rational. They miss the historical and material ground on which, contrary to what Stephen Jay Gould argued, science and religion have overlapped all along. [9]

Science was born out of modes of human action and knowledge that were profoundly religious; religion, in that sense, was the prehistory of science. Only at a certain stage of historical maturity, in our own modern age, did science begin its independent life, handling the world in a radically new way – by systematically discovering its inner laws of development. According to this approach, atoms, bacteria, elephants, and galaxies obey not divine commands but their own nature – a nature we human beings learn to adapt to our needs.

But this modern age of ours holds its paradoxes for science as much as for religion. Just as it revives moribund religion, so it denies science its full birthright. Most disgracefully, the prevailing social system dehumanizes science by recruiting it into its most evil campaigns. Yet in their eagerness to condemn the irrationality of religion, the New Atheists absolve the corruption of science.

Science cannot win the battle on behalf of reason while chained to an irrational social order. It will only prevail when, instead of being used to build weapons that annihilate entire cities, it is used to wipe out entirely preventable diseases that kill millions every year; when, instead of helping develop sophisticated technologies of social control and surveillance, it frees us all to lead our lives to the best of our abilities; when, instead of serving the interests of the powerful, it fully supports the wellbeing of the people. Until then, the most advanced and knowledgeable society in human history will continue to spread unnecessary misery and ignorance – the social muck on which popular religion flowers.

In the End, a Socialist Challenge

Ruled by elites just as greedy and power-grabbing as their capitalist counterparts, so-called socialist societies have often been backward and brutal. Yet there is another socialist tradition, one that upholds in secular terms humanist ideals that have frequently taken a religious form. Solidarity, justice, dignity – these are some of the values those of us who adhere to this tradition passionately share with many believers. Our common challenge is that of their secular realization.

Socialists in this tradition understand that, although gods do not exist, religions do, and will continue to exist for as long as society is less than fully human. We therefore expect further contests between religion and social progress, and wish them to take place on the most civilized and democratic grounds possible. Consequently, we defend the complete freedom of belief and expression for all faiths, as we do for all opinions, including those critical of and offensive towards religion.

Humanist socialists also believe in a democratic framework for religious practice, so that the authorities neither privilege nor infringe on it. Hence, on the one hand, public funding of churches and religious schools, as well as special tax exemptions for religious activities, should be eliminated; while laws should be made according to the will of the people and not according to the self-appointed interpreters of God’s will. On the other hand, the state must not unfairly interfere with the private conduct of religious life. For example, parents should be free to indoctrinate their children in a particular faith, just as in morals or politics. Such teaching does not constitute, as Dawkins suggests, a form of child abuse.

To science, this socialism sets the challenge of winning the argument the only way it can truly be won – in practice. For, in practice, the fight is not purely mental, but historical, because the whole future of our species is at stake. The mission, as Marx put it, is no longer to refute, but to destroy – to destroy the monstrous conditions of present society and let our rational humanity thrive in glorious peace.


1. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006); Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Viking, 2006); Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006); Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2007).

2. Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 54.

3. Michel Onfray, Atheist Manifesto: The Case against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (New York: Arcade Pub., 2007).

4. Vladimir Lenin, ‘The Attitude of the Worker’s Party to Religion’, Proletary 45, May 13 [26], 1900.
Marxists Internet Archive:

5. Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

6. For a recent overview of religious trends in Europe, see Philip Jenkins, God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

7. Karl Marx, ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction’, in Joseph O’Malley, ed., Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 129-142.

8. A useful survey of contemporary religion in the USA is Alan Wolfe, The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith (New York: Free Press, 2003).

9. Steven Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (New York: Ballantine Pub. Group, 1999).

Paula Cerni MPhil is an independent writer. For other publications, please visit