The anarchist Mikhail Bakunin is one of the most famous atheists of the 19th century. Almost a century and a half before rational men on youtube ruined anti-theism for everyone else Bakunin was advocating “the abolition of [religious] cults” and “the substitution of science for faith” (Bakunin 2016, 33). He argued that “if God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him” (Bakunin 1973, 128) Why did Bakunin think this and what were his views on religion?
For Bakunin religion was based on human beings subordinating themselves to a divine power which they themselves had imagined and attributed distinctly human characteristics to. Borrowing heavily from the German philosopher Feuerbach Bakunin wrote,
All religions, with their gods, their demigods and their prophets, their messiahs and their saints, were created by the credulous fancy of men who had not attainted the full development and full possession of their faculties. Consequently, the religious heaven is nothing but a mirage in which man, exalted by ignorance and faith, discovers his own image, but enlarged and reversed – that is, divinized. The history of religions, of the birth, grandeur and decline of the gods who have succeeded one another in human belief, is nothing, therefore, but the development of the collective intelligence and conscience of mankind. As fast as they discovered, in the course of their historically progressive advance, either in themselves or in external nature, a power, a quality, or even any great defect whatever, they attributed them to their gods, after having exaggerated and enlarged them beyond measure, after the manner of children, by an act of their religious fancy. Thanks to this modesty and pious generosity of believing and credulous men, heaven has grown rich with the spoils of the earth, and, by a necessary consequence, the richer heaven became, the more wretched became humanity and the earth. God once installed, he was naturally proclaimed the cause, reason, arbiter, and absolute disposer of all things: the world thenceforth was nothing, God was all; and man, his real creator, after having unknowingly extracted him from the void, bowed down before him, worshipped him, and avowed himself his creature and his slave. (Bakunin 1973, 124)
The genuine belief in this metaphysical subordination was then exploited by God’s self-proclaimed representatives on earth to justify their very real material oppression of others. He wrote,
God being everything, the real world and man are nothing. God being truth, justice, goodness, beauty, power and life, man is falsehood, iniquity, evil, ugliness, impotence and death. God being master, man is the slave. Incapable of finding justice, truth and eternal life by his own effort, he can attain them only through a divine revelation. But whoever says revelation says revealers, messiahs, prophets, priests and legislators inspired by God himself; and these, once recognized as the representatives of divinity on earth, as the holy instructors of humanity, chosen by God himself to direct it in the path of salvation, necessarily exercise absolute power. All men owe them passive and unlimited obedience; for against the divine reason there is no human reason, and against the justice of God no terrestrial justice holds. Slaves of God, men must also be slaves of Church and State, in so far as the State is consecrated by the Church. (Bakunin 1973, 124-5)
The harm of religion so understood was profound. For Bakunin religions destroy people’s
reason, the principle instrument of human emancipation, and reduce them to imbecility, the essential condition of their slavery. They dishonor human labour, and make it a sign and source of servitude. They kill the idea and sentiment of human justice, ever tipping the balance to the side of triumphant knaves, privileged objects of divine indulgence. They kill human pride and dignity, protecting only the cringing and humble. They stifle in the heart of nations every feeling of human fraternity, filling it with divine cruelty instead. All religions are cruel, all founded on blood; for all rest principally on the idea of sacrifice – that is, on the perpetual immolation of humanity to the insatiable vengeance of divinity. In this bloody mystery man is always the victim, and the priest – a man also, but a man privileged by grace – is the divine executioner. (Bakunin 1973, 126)
Bakunin did not, however, blame workers and peasants for believing in God but held it was a product of the society they lived in. According to Bakunin,
Nothing is more natural than that the belief in God, the creator, regulator, judge, master, curser, savior, and benefactor of the world, should still prevail among the people . . . The people, unfortunately, are still very ignorant, and are kept in ignorance by the systematic efforts of all the governments, who consider this ignorance, not without good reason, as one of the essential conditions of their own power. Weighted down by their daily labour, deprived of leisure, of intellectual intercourse, of reading, in short of all the means and a good portion of the stimulants that develop thought in men, the people generally accept religious traditions without criticism and in a lump. These traditions surround them from infancy in all the situations of life, and artificially sustained in their minds by a multitude of official poisoners of all sorts, priests and laymen, are transformed therein into a sort of mental and moral habit, too often more powerful even than their natural good sense. (Bakunin 1973, 117-8)
One of the main reasons why workers and peasants clung to religion was because it enabled them to escape from “the wretched situation to which they find themselves fatally condemned by the economic organization of society in the most civilized countries of Europe.” They were “reduced, intellectually and morally as well as materially, to the minimum of human existence, confined in their life like a prisoner in his prison, without horizon, without outlet, without even a future.” (Bakunin 1973, 118) Religious people should therefore not be blindly attacked but empathized with since their belief in God was grounded in “a deep discontent at heart” and “the instinctive and passionate protest of the human being against the narrownesses, the platitudes, the sorrows, and the shames of a wretched existence.” (Bakunin 1973, 123)
Bakunin was nonetheless an anti-theist who advocated the abolition of religion. In so doing he was not arguing that people should be forced to be atheists. In 1872 he advocated “the most profound and sincere respect for the freedom of conscience of all” and “the sacred right of all to propagate their ideas”. This of course also included his right to “attack the divine idea in its every manifestation – religious, metaphysical, political and juridical”. (Bakunin 2016, 218) Nor did Bakunin think that the socialist movement should exclude believers in God. He explicitly argued that the 1st International should not be officially committed to atheism because it had to attract the millions of workers who believe in God in order to become a genuine mass movement capable of overthrowing capitalism and the state. (Bakunin 2016, 211)
Bakunin instead held that the abolition of religion could only occur through transforming society as a whole because what people thought was a product of their daily experiences and the social structures they were a part of or effected by. He wrote, “thinking flows from life, and to modify thinking, one must transform life. Give a people a broad and humane life and it will astound you by the profound rationalism of its ideas.” (Bakunin 2016, 14) Given this, Bakunin argued that the abolition of religion could only be achieved by a social revolution which abolished capitalism and the state in favour of the free association of free producers. (Bakunin 1973, 123)
This is what Bakunin thought but what should we as modern anarchists make of Bakunin’s views on religion? I myself am an atheist and have been my entire life but I think Bakunin makes too strong a case. Religion does regularly coincide with authoritarianism but it can also result in emancipatory politics, as can be seen in the history of liberation theology in Latin America or, to give an earlier example, the true levelers in England who used the bible to advocate the abolition of class society in the 17th century hundreds of years before the anarchist movement even emerged. Nor am I convinced that religion would be abolished after a social revolution. This is because even under an anarchist society where suffering was greatly reduced people would still be drawn to religion in response to the inescapable suffering of human existence, such as death, heartbreak, and existential terror.
Bakunin, Michael. 2016. Selected Texts: 1868-1875. Edited by A W Zurbrugg. London: Anarres Editions.
Bakunin, Michael. 1973. Selected Writings. Edited by Arthur Lehning. London: Jonathan Cape.