frontline volume 2, issue 7 June 2008

Socialists and Religion
A Broad Church

In response to Nick McKerrell's article in Frontline Vol 2, Issue 5 which advocates a greater engagement with Atheism Robert Richard takes a closer look at religion and education.

In this short essay I will consider some of the current media presentations of both religious and non-religious viewpoints, examine current trends in the Scottish educational system with regard to 'secular' education, and then offer a brief overview of the Religious Left in the USA and UK, before drawing some conclusions with regard to possible party policy directions.

From Canterbury recently, the anti-war archbishop, Rowan Williams, utilised his Easter sermon to offer a significant analysis of rampant consumerism and 'the greed of societies that assume there will always be enough to meet their desires -enough oil, enough power, enough territory'. However Atheist commentators such as Dawkins and Hithcens prefer to ignore the more rational, moderate strands of Christianity in particular and instead concentrate their fire and focus upon the Conservative, Evangelical wing.

Historically, indeed, it was the left, as opposed to secular liberalism, which was most hostile to religion. From Tsarist Russia to Tibet, organised religion often supported the established order, encouraging social deference to the powers that be and leaving ambitions for social justice to the after life. Seamus Milne points out that , as religion has declined in Europe and elsewhere and capitalism has eroded the ties binding religious institutions to ruling elites, that has become ever less true. When Marx was in his prime there can be little doubt that organised religion, in particular the hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic church held significant political patronage and sway. It is indeed interesting to note that Nick McKerrell calls for an openness of 'critical thinking' which cannot be found within hierarchical structures with belief in their 'superstitious' (in his words) deities. This would be to deny the weight of a strand of philosophical thought (surely an arena of critical thinking) from Rene Descartes to Immanuel Kant, who have in the past argued in favour of the existence of God.

Religion on the whole is now rather locked in a struggle with the unfettered rule of money - a capitalism that seeks to dominate exactly the social and personal arena which religion has always regarded as its own arena. As it's public influence diminishes across the globe, religion's more radical and anti-establishment voices have been strengthened. That is the context in which, for example, Hugo Ch‡vez of Venezuela declares Jesus as the first socialist 'If you really want to look at things through the eyes of Jesus Christ who I think was the first socialist only socialism can really create a genuine society.' Significantly, Che Guevara-style images of the founder of Christianity are carried on political demonstrations in Caracas.

None of this is to deny the strength of thought and outlook within some religious movements built around a particular understanding of their sacred texts. We see this in the Vatican's opposition to contraception in Aids-ravaged Africa, Hindu nationalism in India, takfiri Islam, and the power of rightwing US evangelicals (a theme to which I will return). Nor can it overlook a compromise with social conservatism over women's or gay rights. It does however point to the scope for stronger alliances and dialogue between the secular left and religious progressives against poverty, capitalism and war - an engagement that has the potential to change both sides in other ways, too. The National Union of Teachers' proposal for secular schools to offer religious instruction as a way out of the faith school controversy is one such positive attempt at engagement.

Secular Education

Secular Education is technically that which exists in a country which has a secular government or where there has been a separation of religion and state. Although the Protestant Church of Scotland is the 'established' church in Scotland there has never been such a thing as a 'Protestant' school in modern times. (the Church of Scotland at its formation in 1560 had called for a school in every parish as a means of educating the general populus).

Features of secular education include sex education and extended scientific education, where evolution is taught. It is also where pupils are aware within the curriculum that they are a citizen living in a secular society. Where comparative religions, world history and public laws are studied. All of this applies to Scotland. A particularly strong secular system would be found by contrast to some extent in France where the wearing of religious symbols can be banned.

Faith Schools have recently become an issue in some areas of the North East of England with Peter Vardy's 'Emmanuel Colleges', However these evangelical, business sponsored institutions are not an issue in Scotland. where the only faith schools at the moment are of course Roman Catholic, which has proved to be an emotive issue, although I would argue that this is confined to the west coast of the country. Indeed I would agree with many that football allegiances contribute more to sectarianism than Catholic schooling.

As regards the governments stipulation for an act of Collective Worship-the 'reality' in non-denominational schools is that this does not happen in any case,a school appointed chaplain, if required this could simply be widened out to include an Iman etc,with additional prayer rooms/facilities for Muslim pupils.

Trends-Curriculum for Excellence

The Implementation time for the Curriculum for Excellence is August 2008 (an unrealistic target albeit). The key aims and objectives of the new structure being to enable pupils to be successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens effective contributors with Cross Curricular Themes 3-18 rather than 5-14 Subjects areas are 'Health and wellbeing, Social Subjects, Expressive Arts, Mathematics, Sciences, Technologies, Languages and RME.'

The question is then posed-should Religious Moral and Philosophical Studies be removed from what is a secular educational system?

Common topics in an RMPS Curriculum (non-denominational) include

Human Rights, Prejudice Gender Issues, homophobia, Racism, The Environment, Wealth and Poverty, War and Peace, Crime and Punishment Medical Ethics, Marxism, Humanism, Philosophy-Hume, Descartes, Kant. It is also one of the fastest growing subjects in numbers of students chosing to pursue it at Higher level.

Part of the new remit includes a requirement to examine the contribution made to Scottish society by Christianity and other World Religions.

The most recent surveys suggest that around 70% of people in the UK believe in a god or gods. In Scotland 47% say they 'belong to' or adhere to the Church of Scotland, with 28% claiming no religion/religious belief.

If we take time to examine some of the more positive initiatives of the Church of Scotland historically, such as the aforementioned establishment of parish schools and an educational system, housing reforms and social work in the 19th century etc, as well as the fact that the Church provides the largest social work department in the country outwith Glasgow, not to mention the radical nature of the Covenanting period of Scottish history (a topic which would demand an essay in itself), we can surely find contributions which have been made to Scottish society in the light of this. In addition the Catholic church was of course able to provide a focus and community for Irish workers in Scotland following the migrations of the 1840's.

As well as an academic study of World Religions RMPS can combat Islamophobia-Where else in the Curriculum does this effectively occur?

Within Higher Education in Scotland there has been a recent move towards the establishment of Islamic Studies Courses and Departments. Surely in the current climate of Islamophobia in the media such opportunities for study, sharing and dialogue within the educational system should be encouraged as a matter of public policy?

The Religious Left in the USA

Nowhere in the world presents a greater recruiting ground for those who would oppose an religious and political ties than the USA. From Ronald Reagans's government of the 80's through to the horrors of the Bush administrations it would appear that an ultra-Conservative church going religious 'right' has shaped and influenced many of the government's decision making and general political outlook. In the last presidential election for instance most Republican voters were also church members. However, what is often overlooked in this context is the voice of the Religious Left in America. This term originated in the USA, and is used to describe those who hold strong religious beliefs and share Left-wing political ideals. The term often specifically refers to Christian beliefs and can be interchangeable with the term Christian Left. Subsequently, the term has been used to describe groups and persons from countries outside the USA. It is the counter-point and balance to the Christian Right.

The most common religious viewpoint which might be described as 'left wing' as we have already noted is that of social justice, or care for the poor. Supporters of this ethic might be led in turn to also support universal health care, generous welfare, subsidised education, foreign aid and government subsidised schemes for improving the conditions of the disadvantaged. Stemming from egalitarian values, adherents of the Christian left (in the USA and elsewhere consider it part of their religious duty to take actions on behalf of the oppressed. As nearly all major religions contain some kind of requirement to help others, (as found in the aforementioned Golden Rule) social justice has been cited by various religions as in line with their faith.

In the United States, members of the Christian Left are drawn from a variety of denominations: Peace churches, Protestant mainline churches, strands of Roman Catholicism, and even some members of the evangelical community.

The Christian Left does not appear to be so well-organised or publicised as its right-wing opponents, with the right claiming that this is due to its lack of numbers. Adherents suggest that it is actually more numerous but mostly made up of people who are perhaps less willing to voice political views in as strident a fashion as the Christian Right. Further, supporters contend that the Christian Left has had relatively little success securing widespread corporate, political, and major media patronage compared to the Right, and there can be little doubt that this is true. In the aftermath of the 2004 election in the United States Progressive Christian leaders started to form groups of their own to combat the Religious Right. The Center For Progressive Christianity and The Christian Alliance For Progress are two such groups that have formed to promote the cause. Included within these movements are 'Red Letter' Christians - those who have gone through the Bible picking out the numerous references to alleviating poverty and social justice as being the core message of the text, and building their version of Christian ethics around this.

Christian Communism is a theological and political theory based upon the premise that the teachings of Jesus Christ compel Christians to support communism as the ideal social system. Although there is no universal acceptance of the precise date when Christian communism was founded, many Christian communists assert that evidence from the Bible points to the first Christians, including the Apostles, creating their own small communist society, following Jesus' death and resurrection. Subsequently, many adherents of Christian communism argue that it was taught by Jesus and practised by the Apostles themselves.

In general, Christian communism evolved independently of Marxism, and most Christian communists share the conclusions but not the underlying premises of Marxist communists.

The Christian Left sometimes differs from other Christian political groups on issues including (but not limited to) homosexuality. This is sometimes not a matter of different religious ideas, but one of focus viewing the prohibitions against killing, or the criticism of concentrations of wealth, as far more important than social issues emphasised by the religious right, such as opposition to homosexuality.

Other members of the Christian left affirm that homosexual practice is compatible with the Christian life. They believe common biblical arguments used to condemn homosexuality are either wrong, misinterpreted, or irrelevant to modern same-sex relationships.

Therefore, these theologians use sociology and economics to understand poverty, since they considered poverty was the source of sin. In the sixties, when they started this line of thought, social sciences in Latin America and Europe were dominated by Marxist activism and methodologies derived from historical materialism, which influenced the development of Liberation theology. They then read the Bible from the new perspective and developed the ethical consequences that led many of them to an active participation in the political life, and to focus on Jesus Christ as not only the Redeemer (for them) but also the Liberator of the oppressed. It emphasises the Christian mission to bring justice to the poor and oppressed, particularly through political activism. Some elements of certain liberation theologies have been rejected by the Catholic Church, as Nick McKerrell also points out.

It is also worth citing the examples of Gandi, the Dalai Lama and Martin Luther King as positive examples of radical religion who in turn fostered social change in their communities, King though certainly no Communist as he was accused of by this enemies was, however, a democratic socialist, a Christian socialist, who firmly believed that meeting the basic needs of the poor was a higher priority than ensuring profit for the few.

As recent documentaries on his life and work have demonstrated his social mission was rooted in his religion. It could be argued indeed that without the underpinning of religion the Civil Rights movement in the USA would never has got off the ground.

Christian Socialism in the UK

In 1848, a group of Christians who supported Chartism held a meeting in London. People who attended the meeting included Frederick Denison Maurice, Charles Kingsley and Thomas Hughes. The meeting was a response to the decision by the House of Commons to reject the recent Chartist Petition. The men, who became known as Christian Socialists, discussed how the Church could help to prevent revolution by tackling what they considered were the reasonable grievances of the working class.

Frederick Denison Maurice was acknowledged as the leader of the group and his book The Kingdom of Christ (1838) became the theological basis of Christian Socialism. In the book Maurice argued that politics and religion are inseparable and that the church should be involved in addressing social questions. Maurice rejected individualism, with its competition and selfishness, and suggested a socialist alternative to the economic principles of laissez faire. Christian Socialists promoted the co-operative ideas of Robert Owen and suggested profit sharing as a way of improving the status of the working classes and as a means of producing a just, Christian society.


In conclusion, I would suggest that where religion is investigated from the perspective of its more radical elements there is scope for some form of opportunity for the left to be potentially able to share common ground on social issues/policy.

An engagement with Atheism which Nick McKerrell calls for is of course always open to individual members of the SSP, it is a debate which he rightly posits can be held at Branch level etc. However I am not convinced that a move towards Atheism (or indeed an endorsement of any particular religious viewpoint) is possible for any political party. Surely in a pluralist, open, democratic society choices made within the sphere of belief or non-belief must be left to the individual to make.

There are indeed Socialists who have arrived at their political position due to a religious background (of a more liberal nature) who have discovered a shared moral and social outlook , which has in turn stimulated political and activist interest. I am not so sure that Atheism naturally leads to adopting a socialist worldview to quite the same extent, although of course I accept that individual comrades will be able to make a case for this as well.

In an increasingly multicultural Scotland a policy of respect, openness, dialogue, fraternity, acceptance and mutual understanding appears to be more important than ever. In order to reach out to as wide and varied a section of society as possible it is perhaps more productive to be neutral on questions of religious or non-religious affiliation.