Some defenders of religion have argued that religion is like sex—efforts to repress or eradicate it are futile, unrealistic, and inhuman because it’s part of human nature. Repressing religion is like repressing sex—it is not only impossible, it’s disastrous. Like sex, religion doesn’t go away; it comes back with a vengeance in the most outlandish and perverted forms. The totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century are a case in point—they are perverted religions.
That’s the view of English political philosopher John Gray (“The Atheist Delusion,” The Guardian, March 15, 2008). The same view has been expressed by English literary critic Terry Eagleton. In Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (2009), Eagleton makes the unlikely comparison of Christianity with the cult of Dionysus—the Greek god of wine, sex, and revelry (p. 92). Supposedly, the exile of Dionysus leads eventually to his return, accompanied by his wild and untamed devotees. That’s what Eagleton means by the “return of the repressed.” Although Eagleton and Gray do not explain, the idea belongs to early Freud. It is most clearly articulated in “Civilized Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness.” According to Freud, too much sexual repression causes neuroses. Gray and Eagleton apply Freud’s thesis on sex to religion; they maintain that the repression of religion is liable to result in excess and perversity.
According to Gray and Eagleton, the “new atheists” fail to recognize that the horrors of the last century were not the work of religion properly understood but of secular regimes—Communism and Fascism—whose repression of religion backfired and transformed them into grotesque forms of religion comparable to the perversions of repressed sexuality. Gray and Eagleton warn us that we must learn the lessons of the past because liberal humanism and its “proselytizing atheists” are making the same mistake. Supposedly, Christian fundamentalism and Islamic terror are manifestations of the “return of the repressed.” So atheists had better watch out. The more they repress religion, the more it will come back to bite them. The unstated implication is that the repression of religion may prove the undoing of the West just as the repression of sex has proved the undoing of the Catholic Church.
It seems to me that Gray and Eagleton are making two very different claims that should be clearly distinguished—one is factual, and the other is philosophical. The factual claim is that the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century (Communism and Nazism) repressed religion. The philosophical claim is that this repression of religion created such a hankering for what was repressed that these regimes ended up being perverse forms of religion. As I will show, both claims are extremely problematic.
First, the factual claim that religion has been brutally repressed in the twentieth century is an exaggeration. Communists such as Lenin and Marx were indeed hostile to religion because they shared Marx’s view that religion is the “opium of the people”—that is, it sustains the established order by promising the downtrodden rewards in the afterlife, thus making them docile and resigned to their miserable condition. In this way, religion plays an anti-revolutionary role. To counteract this effect, Lenin liberated atheism, but he did not intend to destroy religion overnight. He believed that once the world was transfigured by Communism, religion would gradually disappear because it would have no function. Religious people were thought to be suffering from “false consciousness”; they needed help, not persecution. The churches that perpetuated the false consciousness and supported the enemies of the revolution were, of course, another matter.
Lenin did crack down on the Russian Orthodox Church because it was actively supporting the czarist regime. The church was helping the czar’s secret service identify and apprehend revolutionaries; it was excommunicating those who supported the revolution; it was providing material assistance to the White armies against the Red armies in the civil war that followed the revolution of 1917. When some of the clergy resisted the confiscation of gold and silver from their churches to feed the starving population during the famine of 1921, they were executed. In other words, the organized manifestations of religion as the handmaid of the old regime were repressed; religion understood as private faith was never outlawed, and religious people were never persecuted for being religious. Besides, Stalin reversed Lenin’s policy and befriended the churches in a cynical realization that religion can serve as a potent fuel for the war effort. So, the repression of religion by Communism is an exaggeration.
Unlike the Communists, the Nazis in Germany and the Fascists in Italy knew how to use religion to serve their ends. They went out of their way to court the Catholic Church, which was flattered and delighted by their attention. When the Nazis came to power in Germany, Hitler, who had been brought up Catholic by his mother, courted the Church actively. Whether Hitler was a true believer or a cynical manipulator of faith is irrelevant. He presented his regime as the antidote to the godless regime of the Soviets. The churches regarded him as a defender of religion against the menace of Communism. It was only natural for them to be on his side. Pope Pius XII denounced the Communists but not Hitler; after all, by taking revenge on the deicides (i.e., the killers of Christ), Hitler was doing God’s work. For hundreds of years, Europeans had been accustomed to regarding the Jewish people as an accursed race. For hundreds of years, the Catholic Church had isolated the Jews in ghettos, forced them to wear special clothing, declared their property ill-gotten, confiscated their wealth, kidnapped their children, tortured them in the dungeons of the Inquisition, and imposed a host of monetary fines and legal prohibitions on their activities—this is why the Nazis did not have to be too inventive. Far from repressing religion, the Nazis used it to their advantage.
In Italy, the Fascists did the same thing. They made an agreement with the Catholic Church: in exchange for its support and 105 million dollars, they would give the pope absolute sovereign jurisdiction over the 108 acres of land that would comprise Vatican City. Thrilled to be restored to a facsimile of its former glory, the Church did everything in its power to legitimize and support the regime. In other words, the Church sold its soul to the devil for money and power. The agreement, made in 1929 and known as the Lateran Accords, has never been revoked—a shameful testament to the subservience of the international community to the most egregious of religious organizations. In short, the militant secularism that Gray and Eagleton attribute to the twentieth century is a fiction.
The second argument made by Gray and Eagleton is the philosophical claim that the repression of religion causes regimes to turn into perverse versions of religion. Supposedly, they banish God only to replace him with history (the Communists) or nature (the Nazis). These ersatz religions are purportedly more vicious than their genuine counterparts.
In my view, neither theism nor atheism automatically turns people into killers or terrorists. People who strive to be honest, kind, and generous, to please God (theists) or to please themselves and their fellow human beings (atheists) are not a threat to anyone. What makes people a threat to public order and decency are the following three noxious beliefs that Communism and Nazism inherited from Christianity:
- There is a knowable plan, goal, or direction toward which human history is moving. That plan belongs to God, history, or nature.
- True believers (in God, history, or nature) are certain that the plan involves a wondrous transfiguration of the world. The world as we
know it will be destroyed and replaced by a new form of existence.
- Human beings can and should play an active role in the realization of the grand plan.
In its religious as well as its secular manifestations, this apocalyptic vision poses serious danger to humanity because it is not merely a denunciation of particular injustices but a radical rejection of the world.
Contrary to Gray and Eagleton, the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century were not the pathological products of the repression of Christianity. The latter emerged full-blown in all its apocalyptic perversity. The ancient Romans were understandably shocked by the relish with which the early Christians anticipated the destruction of the world by fire; they were horrified when Christian fanatics ignited gargantuan fires to facilitate the final conflagration. Christianity was outlawed in Rome because of its perversity—it was a menace to peace, order, and security.
The trouble with the claim that all the horrors of the twentieth century are an example of the “return of the repressed” is that it fails to explain why religion wreaks so much havoc even when it is dominant, as it was in the Middle Ages and during the European wars of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In our time, religion is not repressed in America, Israel, or the Islamic world, yet it plays a pernicious role in the politics of these antagonists. So, it is not the case that religion gets nasty when it is repressed. The truth is that religion is not like sex. The latter is satisfied with liberty, but religion seeks dominance.