Why the Left Needs Something like Religion

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People aren’t angels. Nor are they perfectly rational. This is of course completely obvious, but the left often behaves as though you only need to get out the facts about the bad things that are happening and people will immediately respond in the morally appropriate way, at least through the ballot box if not at the barricades. But people are busy. And if you never interact socially with people from lower socio-economic groups, then it’s hard for their pain to register as a significant reason for action, if indeed it registers at all. In his book ‘Inequality and the 1%’, Danny Dorling has documented how the interests of the top 1% are increasingly detached from those of the rest of society. One small example: 6% of those earning over £100,000 feel that they’re struggling financially; almost 0% of those earning £80-90,000 pounds feel the same way. How to explain this? Those on £80-90,000 are more connected to those with less and hence are perfectly aware of how well off they are; those on more than £100,000 identify with the increasingly unequal 1% and see how tiny their wealth is in comparison to the superrich.

How was it possible for so many people to vote for more austerity last May after the pain it has caused over the last five years to those with the least? Because on the whole those who didn’t suffer from austerity have nothing to do with those who did, and hence their pain does not register as a reality. The left are quick to label Tory voters as selfish and cruel. A fellow philosopher Rebecca Roach blogged that after the election she defriended all her Tory-supporting Facebook friends, on the grounds that their support for the party is as morally objectionable as racism, sexism or homophobia. But how much does any of us do to relieve the acute suffering of those in other parts of the world? Humans are naturally empathetic animals, but in general empathy arises only when the pain of others appears to us as a concrete reality. Note that the information that 71 refugees (including children) had died in the back of a van in Hungary didn’t create enough public pressure for Cameron to pledge to take more refugees; it took a vivid image of a Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach to inflame public sympathy.

We can wish human beings were better than this, but wishing won’t make it so. The Occupy movement died because it had nothing to do with the everyday lives of its members outside of their political convictions. We need institutions which connect people up, not just for a march or a campaign, but through the very fabric of their lives: birth, marriage, death, coming of age. We need institutions which gather the community on a regular basis, bringing people from different socio-economic groups together to experience each other as human beings united in a project which aims for something more profound than growth in GDP. It would be great if everyone could be naturally inspired by the brotherhood of man, but most of us need a little help to be good, especially given the powerful forces of consumerism and the privately owned media.

For all their faults, traditional religious institutions have throughout history played something like this role. In his recent book ‘Life after Faith: A Defence of Secular Humanism’ (which I review here), Philip Kitcher acknowledges the important role religion has played in binding communities together, and urges atheists to build secular institutions which can do the same. But of course humanist institutions which are specifically committed to atheism would exclude religious believers, a huge proportion of the population. Why not have institutions which bring the community together to contemplate their ideals however they are understood?

Indeed there is already such an institution: the Quakers. Although it has its roots in radical Christianity, many contemporary Quakers do not consider themselves Christians, nor sign up to the traditional understanding of God. Indeed, some Quakers are out and out atheists. Since its beginnings in the 17th century there has been a focus on the ‘inner light’, and Quakers meet in silence to discern it. Some believe the inner light to be Christ, some God (a word with many meanings), some the voice of conscience. Thus we have Quaker Christians, Quaker humanists, and Quakers who believe in a vaguely characterized higher-power. I don’t know of any, but I see no reason why there shouldn’t be Quaker Muslims and Quaker Hindus too. Perhaps we can all have two religious identities: one which unites us and one with registers our differences.

In any case, without some kind of serious community building I can’t see the emergence of unified support for a government able to deal with the inequality which is poisoning society and the climate change which is poisoning our planet.

In the meantime, we have the pressing business of the Labour leadership election. I’m going to take a leap of faith and vote for Jeremy Corbyn. But in the absence of serious community building I’m not confident of his electoral chances in 2020.

The Author

I am a philosopher and consciousness researcher at Durham University, UK. My research focuses on how to integrate consciousness into our scientific worldview.


  1. kapelnerzsolt says

    Traditionally it’s the Party that does this, isn’t it? It has membership criteria, core ideology, often youth divisions, everything that’s needed for community building. Though, with traditional left wing parties membership is almost necessarily classed-based, so the cross-class experience might be missing. And of course, parties are sort of obsolete and unpopular things, at least in this part of the world, and it’s hard to see that if people don’t want to be party members, why would they go to the Holy Church of Social Democracy.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts Zsolt. Yes, I think properly working parties go a great deal towards this. Jerry Cohen talks about his Marxism upbringing as close to a religious upbringing, including the singing of hymns! However, (i) as you say the cross class interaction is crucial, and (ii) I think there needs to be something that ties together people’s lives in a more comprehensive way, outside of a specific campaign or political ideology. The party can exist as a more focused and specific form of organisation.

      I don’t think we have the complete political truth, so I think it’s bad to tie our most general community building institutions to our current and partial conception of the political truth.

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