Science vs. religion: The Marxist view

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Supporters of “intelligent design” did not get the holiday gift they were praying for.

On December 20, 2005, federal Judge John Jones issued a scathing ruling that overturned a decision by a Pennsylvania school board requiring biology instructors to teach intelligent design alongside evolution. Calling the policy “breathtaking inanity,” Jones declared that intelligent design is “not science” and that “the board’s real purpose … was to promote religion in the public school classroom.”

His ruling, the result of a lawsuit brought by parents against the school board, expresses the viewpoint of the vast majority of scientists and science teachers.

To nobody’s surprise, socialists also share this perspective. For one thing, Marxists — like a whole lot of other people — object to the teaching of intelligent design as science because this violates the separation of church and state. But Marxism is also opposed to the very idea of intelligent design as an explanation for the real world we live in.

Idealism vs. materialism and religion vs. science. According to intelligent design, complex biological organisms on earth were created by a supernatural being. This is an example of idealist philosophy, which holds that the “basic element of reality is not matter but mind or spirit” and that “behind or before the material world lurks the spirit or mind creating it.” (George Novack, The Origins of Materialism.)

On the other hand, materialism holds that everything that exists comes from matter and its movements. For example, a material substance, the brain, is required to generate
ideas — including ideas about supernatural beings! The physical world precedes the world of ideas, and the world still exists even if we stop thinking about it.

Religious doctrines are typically idealist. They attribute the existence and workings of the stars, the earth, and living organisms to the intervention of a deity or spirit. Science, on the other hand, is materialist. It posits that these things exist and operate as they do not because of supernatural forces, but because of laws of nature that can be studied and understood.

Both science and religion are attempts to explain the universe and its components. But how useful is a way of explaining things that can never be tested and potentially disproved?

Take the example of birds and why they have two wings and two legs. Biologists have amassed abundant evidence to support the theory that the wings of birds evolved from the forelimbs of quadrupeds, which explains why there are no birds with four legs.

If one asserts that a supernatural being designed birds, however, there is no reason for the absence of four-legged birds. An all-powerful designer could just as easily have created birds this way as opposed to any other way — leaving us no further ahead in understanding why birds are the way they are.

The opposite social uses of religion and Marxism. And religion is of just as little use in explaining why society operates the way that it does, beyond “that’s what God wants.” In fact, since the rise of class society, the major religions of the world provide justification for what the ruling class wants: support for its privilege to exploit.

One of the first great uses of religion in modern times was as a key instrument in completing the subjugation of women as an entire sex. The Spanish Inquisition of the Catholic Church, notorious for its persecution of Jews and Muslims, was also the final blow against the paganism and matriarchal organization of society of earlier days. At the peak of the Inquisition during the 16th and 17th centuries, a single occasion of mass witch-burning could take the lives of up to 100
women — often midwives, healers, or budding scientists.

In our era, religion has been used to excuse the U.S. slaughter of “godless communists” in Vietnam, reject gay unions as violations of the “sanctity” of marriage, and oppose abortion because a “soul” is created at conception.

Marxism, on the contrary, is not a defense of the status quo but a critique of it, and a scientific one. Just as natural scientists seek to understand the laws that turn one form of matter or energy into another, so too do Marxists seek to understand the laws that turn one form of society into another.

Marxist sociology is materialist because it proceeds from the basic observation that human social organization is concerned first and foremost with satisfying the survival needs of its members. In the process, humans act on nature with continually expanding technical skills and knowledge. Over time, these advances in technology, broadly defined, force epic changes in social structure.

The division of society into classes was one such transformation, leading to an entrenched conflict of material interests between different groups. Socialists believe that just as the force holding down a volcano eventually succumbs to the greater force beneath it, these conflicting class interests engender struggles for power that lead periodically to social eruptions — to revolution.

A yearning for deliverance. But while Marxism contradicts religion philosophically, socialists do not oppose the right to hold religious beliefs. Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin put it succinctly, writing that “the state must not concern itself with religion…. Everyone must be absolutely free to profess whatever religion he likes, or to profess no religion.”

While condemning the uses to which church hierarchies put religion, socialists are sympathetic to the cry from the heart that religion represents for ordinary people. Given the misery of class society, people turn to religion to express their desire for freedom and equality.

In a famous but often abbreviated and misunderstood quotation, Marx himself wrote: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation.” It is, he concluded, “the opium of the people.”

Opiates hide the pain of physical disease without curing it. Religion, which promises divine forgiveness and a better life in the next world, conceals the pain inflicted by poverty, hunger, and the other social diseases of this world.

Marxists believe that the answer is not to try to stamp out religion, but to make the revolutionary changes in society that will liberate and uplift humanity in the here and now.

Let’s have the afterlife now instead. Meanwhile, large numbers of religious leaders and grass-roots activists take the side of the poor and oppressed in struggles for social justice. Believers were active in the abolition of slavery, and Black church figures were a crucial force in the U.S. civil rights movement. Dissident Catholic priests, like the Berrigan brothers, were outspoken opponents of the Vietnam war.

Recently, the National Council of Churches USA opposed anti-immigrant legislation, stating that U.S. immigration policies must “uphold the dignity of all people and demonstrate justice to those who seek a home and a better way of life in our country.”

In another example, Pastors for Peace has worked tirelessly since 1967 “to advance the struggles of oppressed people for justice and self-determination.” It has openly defied the criminal U.S. economic blockade of Cuba by sending supply caravans and construction brigades.

And, of course, most people of religious persuasion have reconciled for themselves their belief in science and their belief in God — and many are making a point of denouncing the push for “intelligent design” in education. This February 20, for instance, worshippers belonging to nearly 450 U.S. churches celebrated Charles Darwin’s birthday in an event called “Evolution Sunday.”

The voices of people like these are particularly important now, as the government corrodes the separation of church and state more and more with each passing day.

Handing over billions of dollars of workers’ money to organized religion in the form of tax exemptions is a long-established practice. Today, the government is going further, by channeling public funds earmarked for Katrina relief, the fight against AIDS, and other social necessities into “faith-based” organizations. In fact, fully one-third of federal funds for AIDS work goes to religious organizations whose moralistic promotion of sexual abstinence is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Especially in the current climate, we cannot rely on courts and legislatures to hold the line against creationism in the schools and other fundamentalist attacks on science and the separation of church and state. This will take coordinated action by determined parents, students, teachers, feminists, and other secular and religious activists.

In the course of intelligently designing such a movement, we may just find ourselves moving a few steps closer to a world where peace and freedom are not the rewards of life in heaven, but the reality of life on earth.

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