Religion is a complicated and loaded topic of discussion for any social, cultural, or political circle, especially here in the United States. It isn’t hard to see why; Christian nationalism has been a vehicle for violence, bigotry, and (more recently) harmful conspiracy theories such as QAnon. The largely manufactured religious pro-life movement has fed into legislation and activism that directly harms women and restricts their rights. Fundamentalist churches have been a source of trauma and pain for the LGBTQ+ community for as long as anyone can remember. These are all instances of empirical harm that no reasonable person would be able to refute.
While Christianity is not the only example (Islamic extremists in the Middle East, scholars censored by right-wing religious groups in India, and so on), I am most familiar with it as a deconstructing Christian born and raised in the United States, and so will use it as my primary reference. I have friends that have been directly harmed by non-affirming churches. I have friends and family that have been indirectly harmed by the consequences of religious tenets being inserted into (or used as justification for) bad policy at the state and/or federal level. There are very good reasons for people to want nothing to do with established religion, and very good reasons for these people to feel hostile toward these institutions.
This is especially true in progressive and leftist circles; nearly 70% of US atheists lean left, and often for good reasons. From a political perspective, keeping church doctrine out of state policy is ideal. From a social and cultural perspective, religious doctrine codified into law has a historically-verifiable trend of quashing diversity of culture via forced assimilation or exclusion. When we are looking at the harmful structures around us, many of them are tied right back to American Christianity* in some way or another. Slavery was justified or excused away using Biblical verses. Women’s health and abortion clinics have been attacked in God’s name. Dominion theology has become a pipeline into right-wing extremism. The capitalist framework the US operates within is excused away with philanthropy, as if Jesus’ criticisms of the wealthy ended at “maybe give to charity more, friend”.
These are but a few examples.
All of this puts forward a pretty solid case for someone whose political goals include the liberation of the oppressed, addressing wealth inequality, uplifting marginalized communities, and anti-imperialist policies to reject not just Christianity, but religion all together. To go beyond simply not believing in a higher power, and actively wanting to bring down religion as a structure universally. It’s easy to view religion as a net negative impact on humanity, and it’s easy to see why these leftists will quote Marx’s “religion is the opiate of the masses” as a derogatory statement (Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy). To many leftists and progressives, religion is something to be freed from, an obstacle to overcome, and — in the worlds of the most condescending, an collective hallucination to be banished.
This is an incredibly stupid thing to advocate for.
Leftist anti-theism is both intellectually misguided and strategically disastrous. I’ll let Alfred Peeler’s excellent article handle the former, while I focus on the latter.
I don’t care what you believe personally; you have the right and validity to do so. But if any progressive or leftist movement in the United States is to develop real traction amongst real people, this rhetoric and this line of belief is shooting yourself in the foot before running a marathon. Over 70% of the American public is religious — the majority of that Christian. This is especially true within the working class. The backbone of a worker’s rights political movement are the workers, and those workers have their faith as a significant influence in their lives. To view the structures of religion as purely an obstacle to be removed is to view a core and common aspect of the human experience as an irrefutable evil — and to potentially do so without those people’s consent.
The average American will likely respond to that with a similar fervor they respond to the idea of surrendering their firearms: stubborn resistance, resentment, and distrust. Progressives and especially leftists already struggle to connect with the working class — in part due to the differing opportunities for higher education, but most often purely due to the forms of our advocacy. Politicians, professors, and internet pseudointellectuals like myself all fall into the habit of referring to a mixture of theory and philosophy and not the practical realities of things.
Instead of worker exploitation and the Labor Theory of Value, we should be talking about wage theft and poor working conditions.
Instead of collective ownership and the distinction between personal and private property, we should be talking about workplace organizing and fighting for your rights using strikes and unions.
Instead of appealing to some ideal of (edgy) intellectualism and superiority, we should meet people where they are — what they care about, what they’re affected by, and what they believe.
All the rest is academic set dressing — this is a movement based on making sure human needs are met, and about improving the rights of all people. This is about fair wages, shared ownership, the expansion of democracy, and a healthy baseline standard of living for everyone here in America. My coworkers at Domino’s in 2020 didn’t care about capitalism’s eternal growth mandate, they cared about corporate forcing policies on us and the managers that forced them to work full-time for part-time pay. Effective leftist or progressive advocacy means speaking to other human beings as people. Here in America a lot of people believe in God, and a lot of those people vote Republican — many of those because they feel unwelcome on the left.
Many of those people are working class.
People we need.
We cannot allow this blind spot, this hostile subsect of our political sphere of influence, to keep hobbling us — especially in America, where the world we want may only be possible through gradual, agonizingly incremental steps.
“…there’s a religious illiteracy problem in the Democratic Party. It’s tied to the demographics of the country: More 20- and 30-year-olds are taking positions of power in the Democratic Party. They grew up in parts of the country where navigating religion was not important socially and not important to their political careers. . . if you didn’t get religious people running Democratic campaigns in the South in the ’80s, you wouldn’t win.” — Michael Wear, Democrats Have a Religion Problem, The Atlantic
Religion is part and parcel of life for the majority of the human population, for a wide array of both good and bad reasons. Militant atheists and anti-theists need to understand that however delusional they think religious people are, the belief that religion can be conquered (let alone should be) is far, far less grounded in reality. If we don’t accept religion as part of the human experience, and exclude it from our movement, then we let conservatives and the right-wing define God in the socio-cultural space.
I’m not keen on giving the J-man to conservatives. I don’t throw blasphemy around lightly, but their appropriation and perversion of the Gospels is just that.
So stop shooting us all in the foot, for the love of God. It hurts, and I’m not sure I could afford the doctor’s visit.
*A tangential note for the curious: I specify American Christianity because I feel that their common understanding of Christ’s teachings and the Bible are built on a combination of poor translations, lacking opportunity for independent theological study, and propaganda. The result of this is a belief system that has been corrupted for the benefit of imperialism and the retention of power, which stands diametrically opposed to the radical liberation theology that Christ presented. But “they’re not real Christians” is neither an argument nor perception I wish to spread here, as it’s not on-topic. If you want a good essay on how Christianity aligns quite closely with leftist ideals, check out this essay by Evan Joseph Doerr. I disagree with him on several points, but the general trend is clear. Here’s another overview article on the subject.