A Review of Upton Sinclair and The Straw Man of “Religion”

There is a benefit to being a broke person who was given a Kindle for her birthday. Not being able to afford to buy new titles for it has given me a much needed excuse to read up on my classics.  Many 19th and early 20th century titles (and older) are available for free download.  Nothing like soaking up the prose of the 19th century Oscar Wilde on a 21st century technology.

Thus I found myself reading Upton Sinclair’s “The Profits of Religion,” which drew me in with its introduction about the religion of “bootstrapping,” that is, rich people telling poor folk to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  It is every bit as relevant today as when he wrote it.

Sinclair is a passionate and articulate advocate, and I enjoy his rhetoric on behalf of working people and against social inequality. The main thrust of his argument, however, is that religion, as it now exists, (or more accurately as it then existed) is nothing more than a tool used to keep the oppressed from rising up against a wealthy class that the religious leaders represent.

It is an argument that I might have found compelling in my youth. In fact, when I was in high school I wrote a cheeky essay on how the church was a big business that was interested in protecting its profits. It was full of quotations and clever arguments, and I got an A on it in my English class. So in arguing against Sinclair, I am also arguing against my junior year self.

Sinclair makes the mistake of assuming that there is a single entity in the world called “religion.  Unlike many socialists of his time, he does not argue for the abolition of religion, rather he believes that the inauthentic religion of today can be replaced with a new religion of justice and equality that mirrors his socialist idealism.

He imagines that all religion is in the business of making money and consolidating power, while the religion of social equality does not exist now, only in a utopian future. Of course the reality is much more muddy. Religious organizations modeled on the ideal of social justice exist along side churches that encourage support of the status quo.

“Religion” is always an easy target for its detractors.  I find that religious zealots and religion debunkers often come at it with the same quest for absolute answers and certainty, things that exist so rarely in human interactions.

Those who argue that religion is a force for evil tend to make a list of grievances like jihads, the inquisition, and treasure rooms at Catholic churches in the midst of poverty.  The faithful counter that religion is the source of some of our greatest art, a wellspring of our understanding of the divine, and a comfort to people in their times of great need. They are both right.  Religion is all of that.  Either side is selective and disingenuous if it ignores the other.

Sinclair does make nods to this dual nature of religion, but his overall thesis is that religion is a tool of society used to enforce inequality.  He casts the ministers, rabbis and preachers of all faiths (Buddhist monks do not escape his scrutiny) as acting entirely out of self-interest, seeking financial support of their leisure on the backs of people who labor physically.

Religion certainly can be a tool to enforce inequality.  It can also be a force to fight for social justice.  Whatever its function, most people who participate in a system do not do it in full consciousness of the system they are supporting.  They participate for their own reasons which are a mixture of the self-serving, the benign and even the alturistic and good.  I prefer to give clergy the benefit of the doubt that they have chosen their profession out of a desire to do good.

Sinclair paints a picture of people victimized by their financial support of the church and its ministers, but there is another way to read this.  They give to their churches to support a community of which they are a part.  It is how that community functions that determines whether that relationship is beneficial or exploitative.

To argue against “religion” as an entity without talking about the specifics of religious belief, practice and community organization, is like arguing against “politics” without talking about what the specific government policies are.  Or, rather, to argue against “politics” by making a list of all of the worst offenses by political systems and using that as the definition of the word.

I see a danger in the straw man argument about the evils of religion.  By making “religion” the problem we let ourselves off the hook.  The assumption is that if we only stopped giving religious leaders power over us, we would become perfectly rational and conflict free human beings.  We would not allow ideology to trump our better instincts.

The truth is, every community creates its own language, ideologies and sacred cows.  Every office has its office politics and its mission statements and its unspoken rules.  Certainly you do not need God to have powerful elites justifying and protecting their positions of privilege.

Free market fundamentalism is an ideology that has demonstrated itself to be highly resilient and to have all the force of a religious movement.  While it is not averse to putting religion into service for its own needs, it is not a religious belief in itself. Yet it has its own language, its own heresies and its own patron saints in the form of Ronald Reagan and the atheist author Ayn Rand.  Belief in American exceptionalism or the American Dream are no less powerful than a “my god is better than yours” faith.

In his closing chapter, Sinclair argues not for the complete abolition of religion rather the creation of a new religion that will dominate society “the Church redeemed by the spirit of Brotherhood, the Church which we Socialists will join.”  Such a thing could only be accomplished if the word “religion” meant one thing, if all of the people of the word practiced it and could change their practice to something else.  I am attracted to his egalitarian vision and his love for the concept of a religion that would reinvent the world even if I find his logic overly simplistic.

As long as we are social creatures we will form communities.  We will create definitions of what it means to be “inside” and what it means to be “out.”  This does not mean that communities and cultures are bad.  It means that they have good and bad qualities like the people who compose them.  Overall, getting along with other people in society seems to be more rewarding than living as hermits.

Politics and religion are two ways in which we organize ourselves in society.  Because society is made up of human beings, our institutions are as messy and contradictory as we are.

The question should not be whether organizing societies of belief or nationality is right or wrong.  Rather, given that we are by nature social creatures, we should ask how we can do so in ways that maximize our potential for good and minimize our potential for evil.

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