Easter is on its way, and here in Venezuela, people are heading to church and chowing down on fish. The picture is a little different in my homeland. In Australia, I’m sure as usual people are buying crap, and complaining about how commercialised Easter is. Like most Australians, I enjoy both complaining about consumerism and eating ridiculous amounts of chocolate. Everybody knows it’s stupid, but we do it anyway.
This mentality is often criticised by the religious as a deviation from the true meaning of Easter. I both agree and disagree, and will attempt to explain why.
To start with, the original meaning of Easter has nothing to do with Jesus. The timing should be a dead give away. The vernal equinox was a time of celebration of new life in many pre-Christian societies. Germanic and Saxon tribes held annual festivals for the fertility god on the first full moon after the equinox, while the Greeks celebrated the return of Persephone to her grieving mother Demeter, the harvest goddess.
By the time Theodosius declared Rome Christian in 380, Easter was already a being integrated into Christian tradition. Even as pagan practices were subsequently broken down, Romans continued to celebrate Easter, though the pagan symbols were swapped for images of Jesus.
Like paganism before it, traditional Christian rituals are being co-opted by capitalism. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels wrote that the “need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.…”
Today, capitalism continues to expand, though primate accumulation is no longer quite as straight forward as described above. There are very few geographic regions that aren’t integrated into the capitalist economy. Yet capitalism must expand. New markets must be found, and new commodities developed. Collateralised debt obligations and other creative forms of accounting make commodities out of thin air, while on the streets of some polluted Chinese cities fresh air itself is a commodity. Patenting allows the building blocks of life to be likewise transformed into commodities. Monsanto has a monopoly on genetically engineered cotton, while in 1997 RiceTec famously tried to patent basmati rice. Global outrage resulted in the company being forced to settle on a more limited patent in 2001, but the international controversy aptly illustrated just how far primitive accumulation could go. When Indian farmers fear being sued by a Texan company for growing a millennia old staple, the commodification of Easter seems humble in comparison.
Despite the supposed hollowing out of festivals like Easter, Marx argued that religion plays an important role in capitalist society.
His most famous statement on the subject, however, is also one of his most misunderstood.
In his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law, Marx famously wrote, “Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.
Indeed, Marx did view religion as an illusion, though not necessarily a malign one. Religion is no more than a symptom of suffering- not a primary cause. The primary causes of suffering throughout human history are scarcity and inequality. Religion arises in society to soften the harshness of reality. When Marx compared religion to opium, it must be stressed that this is not quite the attack on religion that many people perceive it to be. The opium metaphor in particular is often completely misinterpreted. Marx himself was a regular user of opium. Long hours of writing with very little time to rest, a poor diet and somewhat poor health left Marx often using opium to overcome fatigue and other physical ailments. At the time, opium was generally regarded in Europe as a legitimate medicine- just as it was in traditional Afghan society. It was only later that its negative health effects became more well known. In a contemporary setting, you could say Marx was comparing religion to a painkiller, not a narcotic. A palliative- something that makes life easier to cope with, without actually addressing the underlying causes of suffering.
From this line of reasoning, religion can therefore be considered a manifestation of ‘self-alienation’. Self-alienation occurs when people live in a commodity based economy. By producing and consuming commodities, workers in capitalist societies are naturally isolated from the sources of the commodities they consume, and the consumers of the commodities they themselves produce. Wage slavery, the inability to meaningfully exert control over the means of production and other burdens all ultimately dehumanise workers. Religion is one way people can feel as though they have some kind of greater meaning. By escaping into the world of religion, people can feel better without actually changing their material conditions.
So, Marx didn’t exactly see religion as purely evil. Indeed, it all too often is used to support exploitative systems, but there are plenty of exceptions- liberation theology being one.
Moreover, in the European context, the institution of religion was actually an impediment to early capitalist development. According to The ABC of Communism, Trotsky argued that the separation of church and state (solidified by the Treaty of Westphalia), was backed by the bourgeoisie for clear, material reasons. The emerging middle class saw the church as a competitor for land and wealth, as well as being exclusively tied to the feudal aristocracy. Therefore, breaking the alliance between the feudal order and the church was a necessary prerequisite for the emergence of the bourgeoisie and the rise of capitalism.
Today, religion continues to be both eroded and propped up by capitalism. Easter is a perfect example of this. Where they can be commodified, religious traditions are preserved in advanced capitalist states. However, in the West religion is little more than a shadow of what it was in Marx’s time. As an opiate, it is simply outclassed by the likes of video games, metamfetamines, Disneyland and the most impressive pacifier of all, television.
Not in his wildest dreams could Marx have possibly imagined self-alienating power of Fox News, Eurovision and telenovelas.
Many atheists view any indication of an erosion of religion as a good thing. Hence, Dawkin’s proposition for “militant atheism”. While practically being an atheist myself, I don’t see any reason to relish any hypothetical decline in religion. I mean, what’s the point? If people simply worship television instead of God, then what has been achieved?