Against religion?

Emma Goldman, writing Anarchism: what it really stands for, pointed out that there were three main strands of hierarchy that anarchists opposed. “Religion, the dominion of the human mind; Property, the dominion of human needs; and Government, the dominion of human conduct, represent the stronghold of man’s enslavement and all the horrors it entails.”

In God and the state, Mikhail Bakunin explained anarchism’s anti-theologism in depth;

With all due respect, then, to the metaphysicians and religious idealists, philosophers, politicians, or poets: The idea of God implies the abdication of human reason and justice; it is the most decisive negation of human liberty, and necessarily ends in the enslavement of mankind, both in theory and practice.

Unless, then, we desire the enslavement and degradation of mankind, as the Jesuits desire it, as the mômiers, pietists, or Protestant Methodists desire it, we may not, must not make the slightest concession either to the God of theology or to the God of metaphysics. He who, in this mystical alphabet, begins with A will inevitably end with Z; he who desires to worship God must harbor no childish illusions about the matter, but bravely renounce his liberty and humanity.

If God is, man is a slave; now, man can and must be free; then, God does not exist.

This is the argument whereby Bakunin, “reverse[d] the phrase of Voltaire” and declared that “if God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish Him.”

There were other anarchists who felt differently. Leo Tolstoy, for example, was led to philosophical anarchism by his devotion to the word of Christ. However, with this came the belief that organised Christianity was an affront to that word. As he wrote in The Kingdom of God is Within You, “nowhere nor in anything, except in the assertion of the Church, can we find that God or Christ founded anything like what churchmen understand by the Church.” In the section on anarchism for the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, Peter Kropotkin noted that Tolstoy’s religious beliefs are “so well combined with arguments borrowed from a dispassionate observation of the present evils, that the anarchist portions of his works appeal to the religious and the non-religious reader alike.”

Tolstoy’s work had a profound influence on Mohandas Gandhi, amongst others, as well as becoming the inspiration for the Christian anarchist movement. Nor is Christian anarchism the only form of religious anarchism to have developed, including a fledgling Islamic anarchist movement.

The question becomes, then, whether these movements are what they seem. Anarchism is by definition opposed to hierarchy and authoritarianism, but does this include religion itself or just religious hierarchy?

Anarchists who are religious and religious anarchists

An anarchist who holds religious beliefs and a religious anarchist are two entirely separate things. The former is an anarchist, whether that means anarcho-syndicalist, individual anarchist, or whatever else, who happens to have religious faith. The two things may inform one another and allow for a unique perspective on each but they are, ultimately, separate. A religious anarchist, however, is somebody whose religious belief defines their anarchism.

If this distinction seems pedantic, consider the same distinction in regards to a more mainstream philosophy, like liberalism. If we take Islam as our example, there is a clear difference between liberals who happen to be Islamic and Islamic liberals. The former are exemplified in groups such as British Muslims for Secular Democracy (BMSD), who defend the right of Muslims to practice their faith openly but also defend secular and non-religious political institutions as the norm. The latter is personified in figures such as Mir-Hossein Mousavi, leader of the opposition in Iran. A liberal and leftist as far as Iranian politics are concerned, he nonetheless believes that the republic should be Islamic in structure and defends the integration of church and state.

Returning to anarchism, we can see that an Islamic, or Christian, or Jewish anarchist society would be very different from a secular anarchist society. For example, one thing all religious anarchists hold in common is that God’s will is the one form of hierarchy that they do not reject. As the writers of An Anarchist FAQ point out, given what is written in holy scriptures, this poses serious problems;

Atheist anarchists point to the fact that the Bible is notorious for advocating all kinds of abuses. How does the Christian anarchist reconcile this? Are they a Christian first, or an anarchist? Equality, or adherence to the Scripture? For a believer, it seems no choice at all. If the Bible is the word of God, how can an anarchist support the more extreme positions it takes while claiming to believe in God, his authority and his laws?

For example, no capitalist nation would implement the no working on the Sabbath law which the Bible expounds. Most Christian bosses have been happy to force their fellow believers to work on the seventh day in spite of the Biblical penalty of being stoned to death (“Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you an holy day, a sabbath of rest to the Lord: whosoever doeth work therein shall be put to death.” Exodus 35:2). Would a Christian anarchist advocate such a punishment for breaking God’s law? Equally, a nation which allowed a woman to be stoned to death for not being a virgin on her wedding night would, rightly, be considered utterly evil. Yet this is the fate specified in the “good book” (Deuteronomy 22:13-21). Would premarital sex by women be considered a capital crime by a Christian anarchist? Or, for that matter, should “a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother” also suffer the fate of having “all the men of his city . . . stone him with stones, that he die”? (Deuteronomy 21:18-21) Or what of the Bible’s treatment of women: “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands.” (Colossians 3:18) They are also ordered to “keep silence in the churches.” (I Corinthians 14:34-35). Male rule is explicitly stated: “I would have you know that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.” (I Corinthians 11:3)

Clearly, a Christian anarchist would have to be as highly selective as non-anarchist believers when it comes to applying the teachings of the Bible. The rich rarely proclaim the need for poverty (at least for themselves) and seem happy to forgot (like the churches) the difficulty a rich man apparently has entering heaven, for example. They seem happy to ignore Jesus’ admonition that “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.” (Matthew 19:21). The followers of the Christian right do not apply this to their political leaders, or, for that matter, their spiritual ones. Few apply the maxim to “Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again.” (Luke 6:30, repeated in Matthew 5:42) Nor do they hold “all things common” as practised by the first Christian believers. (Acts 4:32) So if non-anarchist believers are to be considered as ignoring the teachings of the Bible by anarchist ones, the same can be said of them by those they attack.

Tolstoy’s solution to this was to centre his beliefs around the sermon on the mount and the reported words of Jesus himself. Implicit in these was a rejection of all the authoritarianism which plagues scripture.

However, still inescapable is the fact that divine hierarchy remains in place, with God as the absolute ruler over all. This poses a particular problem where the religious define violence differently from the non-religious, such as in the case of abortion or of non-resistance to one’s enemies as defined by both the sermon on the mount and Tolstoy’s pacifism. If an individual choses to live their life by these principles, that is their choice. If they are offered as a blueprint for society, individual choice is removed from the equation and so we are not talking about anarchy.

Religious anarchism should be rejected out of hand because, in surrendering to the will of the divine (in whatever form that may take), it is fundamentally a blueprint for theocracy. It is the recognition of a deity as society’s supreme ruler. That such a theocracy would be far more libertarian than, say, Afghanistan under the Taliban, doesn’t alter this basic fact. Like anarcho-capitalism and national anarchism, religious anarchism is not actually anarchic at all.

To this, religious anarchists might argue that their society would allow freedom of worship, and would not impose their religious principles upon non-believers. If they are sincere, the obvious response is that they are arguing for a secular anarchy where they hope the majority of people would share their faith rather than for an anarchy constrained by the ethics and principles of their chosen religion.

However, from this it does not automatically follow that anarchism is an atheist position.

Anarchism, atheism, and individual faith

The Anarchist FAQ asserts that “most anarchists are atheists because it is a logical extension of anarchist ideas.” For them, “anarchism is grounded in reason, logic, and scientific thinking, not religious thinking” and thus atheism “is a logical extension of anarchist ideas.”

However, “the anarchist case against religion [does not] imply that religious people do not take part in social struggles to improve society.” Indeed, “it is the willingness to fight against injustice which counts, not whether someone believes in god or not.” Leo Tolstoy’s “ideas, along with Proudhon’s, influences the Catholic Worker organisation, founded by anarchists Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933 and still active today. The anarchist activist Starhawk, active in the current anti-globalisation movement, has no problems also being a leading Pagan.”

The question of whether individuals holding religious faith within an anarchist society or the anarchist movement is a straightforward one for anarchists: people are free to hold and espouse any beliefs that they so wish. The only caveat is they are not free to do so without disagreement. If the ideas they hold are a threat to the life or liberty of others, it is perfectly legitimate for people to use direct action, including physical force, to stop them putting those ideas into practice. This principle applies to political and other beliefs as much as to religion.

Under the assumption that they were not harming, coercing, or enslaving anybody else – which is the case with most instances of personal faith – there is no justification for preventing people from practicing their faith. If it is mad, irrational, or even just a bit silly, we should of course not be cowed from pointing this out by a false veil of “respect” for faith, over and above any other opinion. But likewise, nobody has the right to say “you can’t do that” about an utterly demented idea or act if it ultimately hurts nobody.

Of those religious practices that need be opposed, it is clear that organised religion is the blanket under which most of them can be found. The list of crimes of organised religion is too long to list here. I’ll merely say that the Roman Catholic child abuse scandal and the Islamic world’s treatment of women and gays are just the latest in a long line of crimes that can be attributed to creating authority and hierarchy from supernatural belief. Although the saying goes that “those who can make you believe absurdities can mae you commit atrocities,” more often than not – from suicide cults to Islamic terrorism – the atrocities come when somebody organises a power structure around the absurdities.

In the interests of genuine libertarianism, anarchism cannot be atheist any more than it can be Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, or Pagan. Anarchism is a secular movement, as it is only through the separation of faith from the management of society (hierarchical or otherwise) that you can have any genuine freedom of belief or worship.

“However,” says the Anarchist FAQ, “for most anarchists, their ideas lead them logically to atheism for, as Emma Goldman put it, ‘in its negation of gods is at the same time the strongest affirmation of man, and through man, the eternal yea to life, purpose, and beauty.'”

I would agree wholeheartedly with this statement myself. But, of course, not doing so does not prevent anybody from being an anarchist. After all, it is a movement built upon the free exchange of ideas, not a faith or a dogma.

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4 Responses to “Against religion?”
  1. In my experience, religious anarchists do basically argue for secular anarchy. I only rarely come into conflict with my Catholic Worker comrades on this matter. Because of the tremendous cultural power of faith traditions, I wouldn’t mind seeing anarchist versions of every religion. If you can harness that community spirit for positive ends I’m all for it.

  2. As usual, atheist critiques are directed at monotheist traditions, which tend to be exclusive and theocratic, ignoring the bulk of religious history which is autochthonic and does not have these limitations.

    • Phil Dickens says:

      To be fair, although I am an atheist, it’s actually an anarchist critique. Hierarchy, authoritarianism, and exclusivity are precisely what I’m arguing against whilst pointing out that – although I still don’t believe in them – there’s no reason to be against religion itself as long as it is libertarian and respects secular boundaries.

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  1. […] would be that I don’t see atheism as a necessary prerequisite for anything. As I wrote in Against Religion, secularism is vital for a free and equal society, and genuine secularism does not bar or make a […]



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