Study Notes

Anarchism and Organised Religion

Level:
A Level
Board:
AQA, Edexcel, IB

Last updated 25 May 2019

Anarchist objections to authority are not exclusively confined to the state. Another anarchist target is organised religion which is criticised on the grounds that it validates the notion of unquestionable authority, provides important support for the state and seeks to impose an ‘acceptable’ moral code on human behaviour.

For these reasons, most anarchists are atheists or anti-clerical. Notable exceptions include William Godwin and the Russian anarchist and novelist Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910).

Anarchists argue that, since all forms of organised religion embody hierarchical authority and proclaim the existence of an omnipotent divine being that requires total obedience, the church prevents people from developing as free and independent individuals.

Anarchism also views religion as a central supporting pillar of the state since it preaches that people should obey and defer to earthly authority, notably through doctrines such as the divine right of kings.

Many 19th century Russian anarchists, for example Bakunin and Kropotkin, maintained that the Orthodox Church played such a role in propping up the autocratic Tsarist regime. In addition, anarchists criticise organised religion for attempting to impose moral codes (based on concepts of ‘good’ and ‘evil’) on people’s behaviour, thereby undermining personal autonomy and an individual’s capacity to make independent judgements about their conduct.

In this sense, anarchists agree with Marxists that religion is little more than the ‘opium of the people’: an ideology that diverts human attention away from the inequalities and shortcomings of earthly existence by promising people a much-improved afterlife if they obey all forms of authority during their lifetime.

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