Pastors spraying their congregants with Doom, forcing them to eat grass and live snakes and to drink petrol have made headlines not only in South Africa but around the world.
Pastor Lesego Daniel poured petrol into a bucket before dropping a match into it and setting it alight to prove that it really was petrol. He then told them that it had been turned into pineapple juice and persuaded people to sip from a bottle of the liquid. Another pastor, Penuel Mnguni, is reported to have fed live rats and snakes to his congregations.
As a result, a Chapter Nine institution – the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL) – is investigating “fake pastors”, including Daniel and Mnguni and also allegations that certain Christian churches use religion to make money illegally and that religion is being commercialised.
“Churches cannot be spaza shops selling holy water and prayers for a profit,” says CRL Chairperson, Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xalavu, echoing the criticism Martin Luther made of the Roman Catholic Church’s sale of “relics” and “indulgences” in the 16th century.
The Daily Maverick has already opened a debate on the investigation, notably in Stephen Grootes’s Coming soon to a church near you: The CRL on November 5 last year, which raises some of the legal and political pitfalls facing the CRL, and its selective choice of targets which will open it to charges of bias against smaller, Christian sects.
For many however, especially atheists, this episode raises much more fundamental questions about all religions.
In other areas of human life, investigations are based on facts, evidence and logic, to test the validity of contesting points of view. The problem with religion is that it is based on none of these, but on faith, belief, ancient texts and dogma. Theology must be the only academic discipline where research does not have to be backed by evidence.
The church leaders being investigated can simply tell the CRL that they were acting in accordance with their religious beliefs and did nothing illegal since their congregants participated willingly. All religions are after all based on beliefs, dogma and writings; they all believe in miracles and supernatural gods and are fundamentally no different from these “fake” religions institutions. The problem for the established institutions is that such blatant liars as these are an embarrassment which threatens to expose the whole irrational basis of religion.
The CRL could face the same arguments on alleged financial offences. “Fraud” is defined as “criminal deception, use of false representations”. On that basis all religions who raise money from their adherents are guilty of fraud, since none of them have any evidence that their promises of miracles or life after death are true. They will all claim that the money is given voluntarily and to criminalise this would be to infringe on a constitutional right to practice religion.
A related problem has been raised by Christian Action around the Hate Speech Bill, particularly its extremely broad definition of hate speech under section 4 of the bill which “includes in its scope any communication which is considered ‘abusive or insulting’ and intended to ‘bring into contempt or ridicule’ a person, or group of persons, on the basis of their gender, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc. This includes email, or social media communications as well as teachings from a pulpit, or in a Bible study”.
Most religions in fact have a long history of intolerance and hate speech mostly against each other, from the brutal Christian crusades up to the Islamic State of today. If you go to Glasgow, Scotland, and attend a football match between “Protestant” Rangers and “Catholic” Celtic you will hear tens of thousands of fans uttering hate speech in the name of “religion”.
Christian Action is clearly worried that their members could be dragged before the courts for just repeating what they have been saying for years about heathens, infidels and others religions:
“There are always abuses in any area of life,” they say, “ including in religion. However, the answer is not to ask, or allow, state authorities to interfere in religious freedom. With regulation come penalties and severe consequences. There are already laws that deal with issues of commercial exploitation and abuse. There is no need for new laws. Fraud, misappropriation of funds, contravening banking laws, educational laws and others give more than enough opportunities for the relevant authorities to prosecute crimes.”
On this, for once there is agreement between these Christians and this atheist, but for the opposite reasons. They do not want the state to “interfere” in religion but I equally insist that religion must not play any part in the state and the drafting of laws, which must always be based on reality, evidence and logic.
Religion is and always has been a weapon in the hands of ruling classes to maintain their domination over the mass of the people, and for the rich to protect their wealth. There have been exceptions – individual religious leaders who took the side of the poor and developed a “revolutionary theology” to try to reconcile the irreconcilable – religion and communism.
But this is impossible, which is why atheism has always been central to Marxism, most famously encapsulated in the assertion that religion “is the opium of the people”, from “a Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” (1843). This phrase has been used, even by a few “Marxists’, to suggest that Karl Marx endorsed religion, on the grounds that in his day opium was used as a pain-killer and a means of escape from peoples’ problems and this was therefore a good thing.
Read in the context of the whole piece however it is manifestly not a justification, but an explanation, of why people, particularly the poorest, are attracted to religion, and why workers need to free themselves from religious ideology:
“Man makes religion, religion does not make man… But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world… The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.
“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.”
This is the theoretical basis for future Marxist leaders’ support of atheism, notably Lenin in The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion (1909), where he writes: “Religion is opium for the people. Religion is a sort of spiritual booze, in which the slaves of capital drown their human image, their demand for a life more or less worthy of man.
“Marxism has always regarded all modern religions and churches, and each and every religious organisation, as instruments of bourgeois reaction that serve to defend exploitation and to befuddle the working class.”
This did not mean that revolutionary parties must bar religious adherents. Lenin quoted a warning by Engels against some who at the time were advocating “a war against religion”, which he called “a piece of stupidity, and that such a declaration of war was the best way to revive interest in religion and to prevent it from really dying out. Only the class struggle of the working masses could, by comprehensively drawing the widest strata of the proletariat into conscious and revolutionary social practice, really free the oppressed masses from the yoke of religion”.
But Lenin was equally clear however that: “So far as the party of the socialist proletariat is concerned, religion is not a private affair. Our party is an association of class-conscious, advanced fighters for the emancipation of the working class. Such an association cannot and must not be indifferent to lack of class-consciousness, ignorance or obscurantism in the shape of religious beliefs.”
Rather than just attacking the most objectionable practices of a few religious leaders, it is time to re-open the important debate on the place of religion in a future socialist society and campaign for a society in which humanity plans its destiny itself and not with reference to non-existent gods. DM