I admit to feeling a slight sense of sadness watching the images of flames soaring from the roof of Notre Dame Cathedral, but once it was reported that no one had been seriously hurt, my slight sense of sadness quickly gave way to a feeling of pleasure. My slight sadness was because part of me appreciates the considerable amount of quality craftsmanship that went into constructing the thing, and it saddens me to see some of that beautiful work destroyed. But when weighed against the symbolism of a major institution of oppression engulfed in fire, it’s hard not to feel happy.
One of the most well-known critiques of religion – any religion – is Karl Marx’s famous quote that “It [religion] is the opium of the people”. It’s arguably one of the most important things Marx said, because religion controls the lives of billions of people around the world. Even in supposedly secular western countries religion still exerts considerable influence. The most obvious proofs of this fact are fairly numerous. Take, for example, the fact that large numbers of supposedly enlightened westerners still feel the need for religious ceremonies at the most important events in their lives – births, marriages and deaths. So for Marx to point out that this important necessity to the lives of so many people is no more than an artificial relaxant is every bit as revolutionary as anything else he said – and every bit as true.
Of course Marx, was not the only great thinker to realise the illusion of religion. About sixty years before Marx penned his famous quote, the great Tom Paine, for example, observed that,
Al national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.1
Paine’s great book Age of Reason totally destroys the credibility of religion generally, and the Christian bible in particular. With his usual perfect clarity of vision and expression he strikes at the very heart of the phenomenon of religion, and explains why such an utterly irrational and largely deceitful belief system has been allowed to thrive for so long – a human invention “to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit”.
Adam Smith, the supposed “father of capitalism”, noted the deep cynicism of religion being used in pursuit of profit even earlier than Paine. Writing in the middle of the eighteenth century about the looting by the Spanish of the Americas, he observed:
… the council of Castile determined to take possession of countries of which the inhabitants were plainly incapable of defending themselves. The pious purpose of converting them to Christianity sanctified the injustice of the project.2
The most successful revolutions against religion occurred in communist countries, such as Russia and China where religion was strongly discouraged. But many other revolutions, such as the French Revolution and Spanish Civil War, also recognised the essential role played by the clergy in maintaining the grotesque oppressions against which they were rebelling. The logic of revolutionary reasoning is convincing, and is basically the same point that Smith and Paine both made: the rich and powerful use religion to justify the massive crimes they carry out in order to stay rich and powerful.
For example, in a recent TV documentary about the legendary songwriter Woody Guthrie, an old newsreel showed a scene from the 1930s where some of the desperate people made homeless from the drought-stricken American prairies were attending a church service. The camera panned slowly over the haggard, care-worn, emaciated faces of the congregation whilst the voice of the preacher could be heard saying how their troubles were “because of how we live”. Their fault in other words, not the fault of a pitiless government that had not long since largely completed its genocide of their own native populations, or of a ruthless banking system where people’s lives were irrelevant compared with profit.
About a century earlier, when thousands of Scottish Highlanders were being savagely evicted from lands they had worked for centuries, the preachers were there colluding with the super-rich as they always have to ensure the grotesque Highland Clearances, cynically known at the time as “Improvement”, would not be resisted by the people:
With a few noble exceptions, the ministers chose the side of the landlords, who built them new manses, made carriage roads to their doors, and invited them to share in the new prosperity now and then with the grant of a few acres of sheep pasturage. In return the churchmen gave God’s authority to Improvement, and threatened the more truculent of the evicted with damnation.3
It’s no coincidence that even today the biggest church congregations invariably comprise poor oppressed people seeking answers for their suffering. Once again they’re told that their misery is all part of some mysterious cosmic plan, controlled by some invisible, all-powerful super-natural being. No doubt many are still being told their suffering is their own fault, and the best they can do is go to church more often, and donate even more of the little they have to church funds.
But the hard inescapable fact about all of the main religions is that none of them can prove the very existence of the god or gods in whom they compel their followers to believe. It’s widely believed by Jews and Christians alike, for example, that their god created man in the image of their god (Genesis 1:27) and that believers were therefore the most supreme of beings with a right to complete dominion over the Earth and everything and everyone on it (Gen 1:28). This teaching has been used to morally justify the vast destruction of our planet and countless billions of other people and other living species. Yet there is no evidence to support the existence of this god that supposedly approves of all this. So it’s far more accurate to believe that god did not create man in his image, but that man created god in his image instead.
So when I watched pictures of flames licking hungrily from the roof of Notre Dame I felt more pleasure than sadness, and I make no apology for that. Let it, and all the others like it burn – unless they be permanently closed down, their priests made redundant, and the space used instead for useful, purely secular, community centres, quiet places where anarchists and communists, for example, could meet up and teach to others the myth of religion, and teach reason instead to the poor and oppressed, that no supernatural being has ordained their suffering, and will certainly not be coming to relieve them of it. They are on their own, and the sooner they realise that the sooner they might decide to combine to do something about it.
- Age of Reason, Tom Paine, p. 22. [↩]
- Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith, p. 711. [↩]
- The Highland Clearances, John Prebble, p. 63. [↩]