on Faith and the Masses

By Bella Marighella

“Just as there is no faith in the God of Life without putting aside the idols that kill, neither is there social revolution without putting side the fetishes that legitimize and hold oppression together; that is, there is no revolution without ‘faith’ in the struggle for life and without organizing people’s hope.” – Hugo Assmann


The purpose of this work is not to argue for or against the existence of a divine Creator. Nor does it purport to provide any answers to the human condition that are irrefutable and necessary. Rather, the purpose of this work is an attempt to synthesize the theistic inclination in humankind with the humanist and materialist motive to revolutionary action. For one thing is for sure, and that, believer or not, religion is a fact of life. To therefore behave as if one knows better, ultimately and irrefutably, is to be the epitome of hubris and, worse yet, is to alienate the masses who are more or less of faith.

It is the very hubris of Icarus, who, being liberated from the strictures of nature through science and artifice, discovered the limits to human prescience in the folly of knowledge. We often know more than we understand, and so by abstaining from faith as if it were a toxin, to avoid it due to prejudice, only further condemns us to melt under the sun of necessity.

Communism has been the atheistic bogeyman of Western aggression. It could be argued that the greatest feat of propaganda that J. Edgar Hoover ever devised was the threat of atheistic communism encroaching upon civilization. Threatening to topple God was a far more real concern to the poor and oppressed than ever was the end of capitalism. The early 20th century in the United States was flush with anti-capitalist movements such as the Wobblies and the ever expanding and strengthening labor unions. These were toppled, however, by the threat of the Cold War and the almost fanatical suppression of the working class which depicted all labor
rights movements as enemies of God’s Kingdom. The specter of atheism is still haunting revolutionary movements in the West today.

Now I am not going to try and persuade anyone of the compatibility of theism with communism. The point for me is moot and too much hot air has been spent arguing against religion by left-wing radicals. The issue for me is not a duality. What I argue is rather the need to satisfy the religious impulse of the people with the progressive principles of socialism.

Religion is a manifestation of the material conditions of humanity. What religion would look like under full communism won’t be known until it is achieved. The truth is that today, while we struggle to realize these principles, religion is a preponderant force.  We can critique the institution of religion while preserving the human inclination for faith. 

Left-wing reactionaries who attempt to force faith out of the people will only become enemies of the people. For really what does it achieve to tell any worker, any suffering soul, that their belief in something better is ignorance? It is not for us to tell the weeping parent of a departed child, lost due to some preventable illness, negligence of egotism, or the violence of reaction, that what allows them to fight is not the conviction of the absolute right to do so. Those who insist on being “right” regarding the question of God are therefore more concerned with their own ideals than they are the advancement of revolution or the well-being of the people. Instead of forcing one’s own conception of the hereafter on another, it would do us all the better to rather find common ground upon which we can work together towards seeing faith’s realization in our own lives.

What is religion if anything but a call to care for each other? To love one another as we love ourselves and our own? We can quibble over institutions and denominational dogma, all with right cause, but at the end of the day what we are really talking about is the essence of what it means to be human. As a radical, that essence for me is to struggle. But for what? To what end are we fighting if not the shared flourishing of one for all? And, in that, is the vision of the materialist humanist so different from the theistic wish for heaven, but on earth?


So, what, then, is faith? Faith exists within the gaps between that which we know and that which we don’t. I know, dialectically and materially, that revolution is possible. I do not know that it will succeed. I have faith though that it will. I know what I feel and experience but cannot know for certain that you do as well. I have faith though that we are united in a shared humanity and that this bond exists beyond my own limited understanding.

Anyone who offers you revolution, community, or even religion for that matter, as certainty is a charlatan. They are selling you false hope. They are selling you hope without work. And that simply does not exist. Where there is hope, there is work to be done – because hope exists where something else does not; does not but could. And we cannot know, without having faith in the project, that it will ultimately come to be.

Hope and faith exist only insofar as they can fail. For if it was a certainty, we would need neither hope nor faith. The root of all evil is in our desire for easy answers. Easy solutions. And I get it, we are all very tired. We are all worn down from the fights we wage every single day. But I have hope that in winning the revolution, those fights will become less certain. We will have faith in the bonds between us and be united in a community of respect and understanding that doesn’t leverage our weaknesses against each other for easy solutions.

Faith has almost become a taboo of its own on the left, so what place does faith have in revolution? Marx and the Young Hegelians believed that, though revolution was a necessary phase in the dialectic of history with its progression towards socialism, revolution itself was not guaranteed. It took the concerted effort of individuals and societies to bring it about.

Even more infamously, Marx never prescribed exactly how to achieve such a revolution, but rather offered a method for discovering within the material conditions of a society the motive and means to do so. Unlike the right-wing Hegelians, Marx and his progeny were not determinists.

The opposite of faith is skepticism. The forefathers of skepticism are the Pyrrhonians. They took skepticism to such lengths that they could not know whether or not the next step they took was on solid ground; could not be sure, as a matter of fact, that what they ate was not inexplicably poisoned. Since each instance was based on generalization, they could draw no certain conclusions, and so were forced to inaction. The answer to this impasse was simple enough. 

At some point, one must act. If we do not eat, we starve. If we do not trust that tomorrow will come, we cannot complete what needs to get done to get through today. What this shows is that humans, as a rule, act without full knowledge. We act under the belief that our prior experience can inform us about future action. Now, belief is merely a single instance of faith, whereas faith is the system of beliefs under which we operate. So, if you act under certain beliefs, you operate under a system of faith.

I have faith that we will fulfill the aims of revolution. I do not know for a fact that this will be so, for if I did, I would have the knowledge ready-to-hand already on how to do so which will bring about communism. The fact that we have yet to do so yet continue to strive bespeaks a faith in my fellow comrades and what has yet to be done. All of this is not to deny a qualitative difference between the metaphysics of religion and the systems of belief that we use to navigate our lives. But it is important to clarify that religion and faith are not synonymous, yet also that the distance between them is not so far.

I do not wish to advocate any one religious doctrine over another. Nor will I argue about their nature, distinctions, etc. What I wish to explore is how faith can be used to bring us closer together rather than as something to keep us apart. I wish to show that it is something that is much more common than is given credit, and that it is not only a system of beliefs about the afterlife, but rather a guide for action here on earth. For, believe what you will about religion, their doctrines are intrinsically guides for action.

“Human Nature”

One of the most pervasive and intractable arguments in favor of liberal capitalist society is that it stems from human nature. Its premise is that self-interest, greed, and competition are the essence of human interaction and therefore our current system, however imperfect it may be, is perfectly so because it conforms to our own nature. Now, the Marxist reply to this is that what is called “human nature” is only apparently so. That it takes that shape due to the material conditions in which it exists, and therefore another nature is possible should one “simply” alter those conditions. So long as one accepts the materialist premise of dialectics, this feels like a slam-dunk reply. Experience for anyone who has argued this point though points in the opposite direction. The defenders of the status quo merely need to double down on their essentialist conception of the individual, and we are at an impasse.

Just as I said that I am not here to convince anyone one way or the other concerning the existence of a providential God, the same goes for the soul. I don’t know if we have one or not because no one can prove whether it exists or not; one can only have faith whether we do. However, this manifests itself in the essentialist belief: that there is an essence not just to the individual (soul) but to the species. It is not a large step then to believing that such things as self-interest, greed, and competition are components of that. Moreover, there does seem to be universal aspects that we all just share which the superficial materialist cannot justify by making recourse to nature for that simply begs the question. What to do with this aporia?

Rather than get into unwinnable arguments over the qualities that constitute human nature (selfish vs. communalist, etc.) I would like to propose an alternative to human nature. Substance and quality have long been a philosophical subject, and so whenever one is hypothesizing about qualities concerning an object, we are in the realm of indeterminacy and subjectivism. What, then, is the substance of being human? What do we need to survive physically and psychologically? Maslow’s hierarchy of needs may seem simplistic, but in so far as we need to eat, sleep, have shelter, reproduce, and all other modes of survival, it offers a point of departure. Not only that, but as material beings, we strive towards the path of least resistance; survival seeks the conservation of energy. The “nature” of humankind then is not a quality, but that which allows us to maintain ourselves in a healthy and productive way. That is the true substance of life, and not only that, but easily applies to all living beings.

We must always be vigilant about veering off into essentialism. Appeals to the benefits or historical existence of communal living take the same line of essentialist reasoning that those who argue for the virtues of competition do. What is wrong with essentialism? For starters, it is used to justify all sorts of bigoted views about sex, gender, and race that only further serve the current order. Worse than that though is that it is not refutable so long as one accepts the premise of a qualitative essence. Provided the premise, one can attribute all sorts of value judgements with seemingly only the exegetical need to pick and choose which historical mode of life one prefers. It is the rhetorical fallacy known as the “appeal to nature” which asks for nothing more than an example from life in favor to prove its validity. But, as the positivists would say, it is not enough to prove something exists, but rather that it is falsifiable (i.e., can be proved wrong). For as every example of “human nature” in the qualitative sense goes, there are examples to the contrary.

One cannot, however, disprove the biological needs of survival. The question then becomes not “what is human nature?” but rather “how do we best satisfy our needs?” This is much more manageable and can be productively argued about and experimented with. Humans are by nature limited. As individuals, we have boundaries beyond which we cannot reach. Intelligence, strength, perception, persistence; all of these we know by their constraints. The classic definition of God, on the other hand, is quo nihil majus cogitari potest – that which nothing greater can be thought. The ontological question of God does not offer us any axiological conclusions. It is an expression of the limitations of human nature, as defined here by the modes of survival, that aids us in understanding what we need, but tells us nothing of how to do it.

The question of human nature therefore cannot answer for us the question of values, just as the existence or not of God does not mitigate our ability to adhere to the values we hold. Those values can only be determined by the mode, or the “how,” in its historical progression. In so far as atheism doesn’t denounce the existence of universal human values, it functions as a system of beliefs about the human animal. In this sense, it is merely semantics to argue over whether atheism is or is not a religion. The question is not whether one believes in metaphysical dogma, but whether society can be redeemed.

Faith and Revolution

In Feuerbach’s masterful analysis of religion in his Essence of Christianity shows, religion is a manifestation of human potential. What we attribute to God is very much a part of how humans conceive of themselves to be – their values, their wants, and desires become manifest in spirituality. Faith, in this manner, can become a guidepost for directing revolutionary action, for by allowing room to believe in what we do not yet have, we are able to realize in the world, as aspired the Liberation Theologians, to bring heaven to earth.

Faith here, in the revolutionary sense, is used merely as a word to describe acting in the absence of full knowledge. We are human and so axiomatically bound by limits of body and understanding. Due to the necessity of blind spots in our knowledge, we must act with faith in ourselves, each other, and the world. Religious faith should not prejudice our conceptions of the word. Christian faith, Muslim faith, Buddhist faith, etc. are all modes of faith. But the act itself concerns the understanding. The Christian mode of faith takes on its characteristics from the tenets of the Bible, but stripped of its qualities it is still the acting in the absence of its knowledge to be true. Granted, there are centuries of dogma tied to such doctrines, and these are rightfully criticized. The substance of faith, however, persists, and unless we come to an alternative in which to place it, people will continue to gravitate to the prejudices of religion to appease the part of their heart that holds them through the moments of uncertainty.

The historical role of religion provided an explanatory framework for phenomena in the world. As science developed and began to describe the motions of the heavens and the bodies within, religion became less and less important. It therefore took up moral questions, and ultimately, the problem of evil. This problem still exists, and for the revolutionary it becomes one that can be solved. There are more than enough reasons to doubt whether such an endeavor can succeed, but that is the very reason faith becomes important for the cause of revolution. We need to believe that it is worth trying to make things better. We need to believe that something better can be achieved, and that the sacrifices demanded for success will be worthwhile.

Without such faith, we perish, because it is only through faith that we can succeed and find the motive to sacrifice the known flourishing of the present for the future peace of all. The revolutionary needs to believe in two things: that we can succeed and that we are right, but neither of these things is certain. We can argue until we are blue in the face about these things, but in the end, there is no way to know for sure. The test of faith is in our effort to make it actual. We can only believe that life can be better, not just for ourselves, but for everyone.

We know that blood will need to be shed because blood is already being shed. To pretend, however, that there is no distinction between the disinterested losses of life of liberalism with the taking of it by one’s own hand as a revolutionary is to deny the very humanity we are fighting for. The real point of the discussion, therefore, is not what we envision the future to be, but that it can be better.

Active vs. Passive Faith

Pascal famously wagered that it is better to believe in God and be wrong than to not believe and be damned. Not only that, but should one not possess faith, all they had to do was pretend. All they had to do was go through the motions of prayer and devotion until one day they would find themselves believing – and, if not, was there really a difference between the person of faith and the non-believer if they still paid the same obeisance? Now, form a purely rational standpoint, the wager itself should be compelling. When dealing with unknowns such as God and the afterlife, we must ask ourselves what is at stake and, if we are thinking in terms of self- interest, the wager is a sound argument. The problem with this equation, however, is not only is it not compelling to the non-believer, but it seemingly devalues faith itself, for if faith is merely the trappings of worship that can be performed by anyone, believer or not, then what good is such faith anyway?

That one could simply “fake it till you make it” in faith seems counter to everything one would want to believe about it. If faith has any value, it should be in its positive effects in the world. There should be a qualitive difference between its existence and absence. James Cone, the Black Liberation Theologian, talks of the history of deception by slaves. He talks of how they would pretend to the white ruling class that they were happy and content with their lot, but that amongst themselves they knew better; given the opportunity to realize their liberty, they would not hesitate to shout a resounding “No!” to their condition. It was a means of survival, and one could hardly judge the lot of slaves by their strategies for survival – the existential disposition was what qualified their being as people. The slaves who bowed down before their master were no less defiant than any other, for in their heart and amongst their peers they knew their worth was more than could ever be denied or dissimulated. This, however, relies on the passive definition of faith provided by Pascal that has proven insufficient.

Now, part of the problem with the wager is that it treats faith as an abstraction. Like much of Western theology, it is divorced from the lives of the people and doesn’t account for material reality as it is lived in its full consequence. Faith is not some disinterested quality in a person. It must touch the world and guide our actions in this life. When done with an eye towards the ethics of humanity, this should always be a liberating action that affirms the dignity of all people – not simply an internal posturing intended to achieve a selfish reward hereafter. For, were faith merely the interest of the individual, it would no longer need to be faith; unless faith concerns the life of another, it is nothing but this self-interested knowledge. If we go back to our original conception of faith – that it is action in the absence of full knowledge – then we cannot divorce faith from what we do here and now. The real question we should then begin asking ourselves is: what are we trying to answer?

What knowledge are we trying to learn? The answer to that question can only come from the experience of acting in faith and seeing the results of that faith play out amongst and for each other. I do not need faith to act in a self-interested way. We all know how to get what we want for ourselves (though the ability to do so may be far from us); greed and selfishness know of no gap in knowledge. Faith, then, comes down to a system of values. They are the ethical precepts we wish to see but do not yet know. Faith is a wish. But that wish should not be an empty posturing to be given what we do not have here in some other-worldly beyond. It should be an attempt to realize what we do not yet have but could if only we would try.

What if the promised paradise we seek has already been granted, but it is on us to realize it through our actions? That is the wager I would counter to Pascal’s, for the true measure of faith would reside in one’s commitment and contribution to such a goal, and not weather one could simply pose their way to heaven. The belief of the slaves as recounted by James Cone could only serve to reinforce their injustice unless it was combined with action to the contrary. Without figures like Nat Turner, without the active subversion of the white owning class, there could be no liberation.

Atheism Against the People

Trust is essential when working with the people, and you don’t get that from being self-righteous. When a person I am working with says something along the lines of “God bless,” I say it back not because I believe in a providential God, but because that person does. The oppressed are not so unfortunate as to have to put up with bourgeois condescension. Imagine allowing a stranger to help you only to then, after showing your gratitude, they take it upon themselves to reinforce the idea that they feel they are better than you?

One does not come to atheism without having first traversed the terrain of belief. Atheism is ultimately an intellectual conclusion, and that is perfectly alright. But belief itself begins as a sensation, something felt in our lives through experience. Whether this is a meaningful conclusion is not what I wish to debate here, but rather that there is some aspect of experience that leads humanity to the belief in a Creator. One could say we have a sense for the divine.

Any non-believer who asserts there is nothing more to the will towards revolution than reason is deluding themselves. The question of faith is ultimately a question of human motivation – it concerns the will. We did not learn to fly by the conclusion that we could. No. We had a greater motivation compelling us towards the possibility for which human invention was devised to achieve that motive. That motive, the verve to persevere, is the very unifying force – call it God, call it compassion, call it what you will – that can bring us to unite to realize our full potential.

Conversely, the believer doesn’t come to faith through reason. It is something felt through the accumulated experiences of what is, more often than not, hardship.  As human beings, we need to feel that there is meaning to our suffering. That at the end of the day, there is an end to which that pain had served. Camus declared it more sensible to persist in struggling despite the absurdity, for therein one defied it and created one’s own meaning. Again, what matters is that there is something that justifies what we had to endure. Why then are revolutionaries so prone to insisting on taking away from theistic people this oh so human inclination? Why not, rather, unite under the shared humanity and bring that purpose to concretization?

All that is to say we must not take a paternalistic attitude towards the people. The masses, even and maybe even especially those inclined towards the left, are preponderantly people of faith. In my organizing, I have worked with churches, religious leaders, and community members who have committed their hearts to God. Are we to deny their help or entry into our community due to the fact that they hold a belief in the here-after? In this regard Pascal’s wager might actually help us. We can assume an end in which the active realization of faith’s goals in the material world succeeds to such a degree that faith becomes indistinguishable from non-faith.

The actions of the atheist and the theist will be aligned in a common humanity that sustains the revolutionary objectives of the whole. Only in that way we can reach the dissolution of the Church and the withering away of religion. If we are honestly to convert people to materialism, we have to offer them a concrete alternative. If we can offer them a material answer to their other-worldly wishes, faith will become redundant and only in this way can we prove not just the truth of revolution but of the human hope for something better.

Conclusion: Offering a Positive Conception of Faith

Religion was King’s, Malcom’s, Brown’s (the list goes on) catalyst for radical change. It brought the people under a single banner in the cause of justice and humanity. Religion, however, remains a bastion for reaction and in its Orthodoxy provides stopgaps to allow doubt to instill inaction in the masses. Conversely, the call of Communism struggles incessantly to bring people together. In its secular surroundings, the pull of identity politics and self-interest divides the left at every turn. Is there a synthesis between these two modes? What do they share that often sees them together in the same dark rooms, and what keeps them, at the end of the night, apart?

For starters, we need to distinguish between faith and religion both amongst the masses and amongst the left. Even people who align with a particular denomination are easily swayed to concede that the trappings of religion are often arbitrary. Let’s leave it to the reactionaries to defend dogma. The most work, however, is to be done by the left. We need to make room for believers because we are believers, too. We believe in the promises of revolution. We believe in our comrades. And we believe in the potential in everyone. This belief, as a system by which we coordinate our actions, is a system of faith whether we like to call it that or not. And like all people of faith, we need a community of believers of like mind to unite with to achieve our ends. The ends of religion, as depicted by Feuerbach, are in actuality the aspirations of human potential. Communists and theists therefore in fact do share in the same hope. 

The challenge is on us, then, to prove to everyone else that these hopes can be seen in the here and now. Vatican II marked a paradigm shift in the 1960s for the Catholic Church from being merely a bastion of dogma to participating in the world. This was the result of modernity making Catholicism increasingly irrelevant, and the thought was that by engaging in democracy, technology, etc. Liberation Theologians would reinvigorate their faith into the secular world.

The most poignant effect though came from South America where priests, once they began seeing the world as more than just the fallen kingdom and found poverty and oppression weighing on the people as a force that could be changed, began not just advocating revolution but in many instances actively fighting on the side of the guerrillas. Figures like Gaspar Garcia Laviana in Nicaragua and Camilo Torres Restrepo in Columbia joined up with the militant Marxist revolutionaries of their countries to liberate the people from the yoke of oppression.

This is a lesson that should not be lost on us today, for the US is no stranger to religious militants fighting on behalf of revolutionary change. Some of our greatest leaders were guided by a great sense of faith, justice, and humanity exactly because they held onto the hope provided by their belief in a Creator.

There is nothing inherently reactionary to faith and, as I hope to have demonstrated, faith plays a role in all revolutions. By all means, fight against dogma and the prejudices of institutionalized religions. But for all our sake, let us welcome the believer, for they are more on our side than the nihilistically inclined atheists who see nothing but destruction and degradation since the

former already possess the truth of revolution: the belief in the human capacity for justice, peace, and prosperity for all. The revolutionary is guided by great love, and so is the person of faith, for both believe in something better. Our task, therefore, is to prove to the believer that what they believe can be seen here, now, where we are, rather than as something to be awaited. The burden, therefore, is on the revolutionaries to prove to those of faith that revolution can succeed, and not on the believers that God exists, for in the end ours is the natural paradise we have all been striving towards for so long.

Photo by Guille Álvarez on Unsplash

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