Very few political philosophers and sociologists could adequately explain the rise of atheism and populism without paraphrasing or at least alluding to the writings of Karl Marx. His conception of materialist historical determinism is a good lens through which we can examine the seemingly contradictory modern-day phenomena of neo-atheism and populism. Why do some atheists despite of their self-proclaimed adherence to secular humanism and rejection of the concept of absolute divine totalitarian rule are seduced by authoritarian populism and its penchant for violence? Why do some religious people give their support to immoral and narcissistic demagogues who have contempt for human rights and traditional values?
In terms of Marxist analysis, the rise of atheism in rich countries is just a product of the interplay between the economic base structure and the superstructure of society. The sacred meanings of old religious symbols are lost in the modern age as the means of production and social relationships/hierarchies become more dependent on the scientific (empirical) understanding of the universe rather than on the metaphysical and dogmatic views of religion.
Marx famously stated in Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right:
“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
“The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.”
In this passage Marx implied that religion is a type of coping mechanism through which the oppressed find solace and relief from suffering. However, he also emphasized that religion is illusory and should be abolished as prerequisite for the people to achieve real happiness.
Marx was correct in his assumption that people who are oppressed and suffering are the ones who tend to cling to religion. No other sector in society can be considered as the most oppressed and marginalized than the poor, which is comprised mostly of the working class (proletariat) and the peasant class.
Many neo-atheists – just like some Leninists and Maoists in the early decades of Soviet Russia and Communist China – are mistaken into thinking that religion should be eliminated to give way to progress. Neo-atheists typically cite the Scandinavian and Nordic countries as perfect examples of irreligious societies that have very low crime rates, excellent education, impressive healthcare system, socio-political equality, high prosperity, and high happiness index. The semi-utopian status of these countries, however, is not the result of non-religiosity but rather it is fundamentally because of economic progress, social mobility and equitable/just distribution of wealth. The non-religiosity in these countries is just an incidental result of equitable economy, not the other way around.
Both neo-atheism and modern-day authoritarian populism can be explained in terms of materialist historical determinism, which is fundamentally economic in nature. The election of Trump and Duterte to high office seem antithetical to the traditional values that society hold dear but the contemporary success of these politicians has little to do with moral values of society but rather more on economic values.
Similar to the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1920s, the recent global rise of authoritarian populism can be explained in terms of a failing base structure and the remolding of society’s superstructure. It can be blamed largely on the failure of neoliberalism to deliver its promise of social equality and prosperity for the masses. In other words, the old system is losing its economic and cultural meaning (base-superstructure interplay). This is true for both industrialized countries like the U.S. and semi-feudal countries like the Philippines.
As the masses became frustrated, they turned to false messiahs whom they think are sincerely challenging the status quo. Hence, the populist politicians are the embodiment of anger and frustrations of a significant portion of the masses that catapulted them to power.
(To be continued…)