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Review: The Meek and the Militant

First published in 1986, Paul Siegel’s The Meek and the Militant: Religion and Power Across the World is an informative and easy to digest read for anyone who has ever pondered the Marxist position on religion or inaccurately encapsulated it within Marx’s famous quote: “Religion is the opium of the People.” Siegel begins by outlining the importance of the role of religion plays in historical and present political issues. In this work, Siegel attempts to set the record straight on various misconceptions of Marxism’s antagonism towards religion.

In the first part of his work, Siegel analyzes the Marxist critique of religion. This starts with tracing the intellectual ancestry of Marxist views of religion to French Enlightenment Materialists’ view of religion. Once the Materialists’ view has been explained, Siegel turns to the Marxist view of religion, which begins with a critique of the Materialists’ view and touches on several topics including, an analysis of the origins of religion, its perception as an ideology and religious alienation.

The first part of the book concludes with Sigel comparing Marxism and religion and addressing the inaccurate charge flung by religious apologists that Marxism, an ideology that supposedly shuns religion, has paradoxically itself turned into a mock religion with Marx as its holy savior.

In the second part of the book, Siegel traces the origins of the chief western religions starting with Judaism followed by Catholicism and Protestantism and ending with the various sects of Christianity within the United States. Each sub-section within this part of the book traces each religion’s respective origin and its development into modernity. The origins and development of each religion is presented with its socio-economic contexts providing an enriched mapping of the human imprint within the creation of religion. In this mapping, labor sentiment towards religion is briefly investigated, usually demonstrating the workers’ lack of religious observance and shallow allegiance to religious concepts as a stepping stone in career development. However, a nod to the uptick of American religiosity amongst the working class in the past few decades is mentioned; a spot on early prognosis of the current far right leanings of current American politics.

The third part of the book looks at the origins and development of the chief religions of Asia and the Middle East, covering Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. Much like the previous part, Siegel delves into the social conditions in which these religions were born and the ways in which the religions developed and adapted to society’s changing dynamics.

The fourth and final part of the book examines religion and the struggle for socialism by analyzing the positions of Marxist parties on religion throughout history. To complete this task, Siegel explores Lenin’s view on religion, as well as the views of the Russian Communist Party, the Chinese Communist Party, the Castroites in Cuba and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Siegel is especially critical of the Russian and Chinese Communist parties and their brutal hostility against and later opportunistic co-option of religion.

Throughout the book, Siegel contends that the Marxist view of religion as “the opium of the people” is a shallow deduction of a topic that was more widely and meticulously examined through the works of Marx and Engles. In fact, Siegel states that the famous ‘Opium’ quote is actually taken out of context because in the original work immediately preceding this sentence is the sentence: ‘Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress.’ It is this contextuality that Siegel argues encapsulates the true Marxist view on religion, which renders it “a drug which enables the masses to bear their misery by losing themselves in dreams that deprive them of the capacity to revolt,” but, and more importantly, can also provoke people “to protest and struggle, can stimulate as well as stupefy,” but “is never conducive to realistic perception.”

In other words, while Marxism views religion with extreme skepticism, it, nonetheless, understands that it is not only the tool of power relations of production used to manipulate the masses, but can also be a tool of revolt for the people should the tides turn. As such, the Marxist position on religion is one of separation and tolerance. Religion should be separate from the State, but it should also be tolerated and protected if the social struggle is to sustainably continue. Once socialism has been achieved, religion need not be attacked, as it will organically fade into the pages of history. If religion is a drug and society is an addict, the solution is not to shock the addict into sobriety, but, rather, to treat the underlying illness of social injustice initially causing the symptom of addiction.

To any religious reader, this book should be taken with a grain of salt as various pillars of unquestioned religious principles are critically explored, but this exploration is necessary for the journey to reach an informed conclusion. The purpose of this interesting academic work is not to deride religion; far from it, it is to exalt the human spirit that endeavors to struggle against injustice and strives for a better world, whether they have faith in their political convictions or their God or both. It holds an unwritten message of hope that religion need not divide us by the powers that wish to control us, but can be an instrument of positive change, and has to always be met with tolerance for any real social justice to ensue.

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