Quiz any atheist on campus about the origin of the phrase, “separation of Church and State.” Do it! Will they tell you that it does not in fact appear anywhere in the Constitution? Perhaps. There are some intelligent students in the Secular Student Alliance. Here is one question that they won’t be able to answer, though: “Why aren’t all people atheists?”
To most atheists, religion is simply a matter of ignorance. They’ll say religious people simply adopt the values and prejudices of their parents without giving them a moment of critical reflection. Whether you’re raised as a Christian or a Muslim is simply a matter of geography.
The new age atheists like Richard Dawkins will say religious people outright reject science and logic. Try telling that to the fifty or so Nobel Prize winners in science from the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
What would it mean to look at religion through a different lens? What if we took religious people seriously? What if we didn’t try to argue religion away but instead learned why religions even appeared in the first place?
Religion is, of course, a product of human creation. The German philosopher Karl Marx discovered that religion must have its origins in responding to a need. “Religious suffering is … the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions”.
For example, the Christian religion saw human suffering as the problem, and it posed itself as the solution. By the power of ascetic practices and the promise of an eternal afterlife as a just reward -- which frees Christians from earthly suffering -- the Christian religion became the “opiate of the masses,” the pain-killing solution to the harsh human condition.
An opiate, however, only affects the symptoms of suffering. It leaves the causes of suffering largely intact. To address those causes would require taking real medicine. “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To … give up their illusions about their condition is … to give up a condition that requires illusions”.
In other words, to address what really causes suffering is to address society at large, and to critique religion demands a critique of society. “The criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism.” Most atheists miss this part. They think you can have a wall of separation between Church and State without understanding how they are historically linked.
Atheists get nowhere by trying to show religion is “false” in some sense. On the contrary, abolishing religion requires abolishing the social conditions that led to religion. “The criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth … the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics”. One could argue that religion, for the exploited, simply is the natural consequence of suffering. You cannot just abandon religion without addressing the suffering that created religion.
Suffering leads to the belief in a better life after death. Those that suffer are taught by religion to be submissive and patient while here on earth and to take comfort in the hope of a heavenly reward. Those that do not suffer are taught by religion to practice charity while on earth, giving them cheap tickets to heaven.
What would it mean to take this life seriously instead of the afterlife? How could we go about minimizing suffering? Before the Left died in the world, it knew the answer was socialism. If religion persists in 2018, then it is more a symptom of class struggle and a lack of freedom than it is a symptom of ignorance or bad attitudes. Any atheist that tells you otherwise isn’t taking religion seriously.
Ethan Linehan is a senior in philosophy and history and can be reached at email@example.com