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Britain's centuries-old tradition of rational thinking is under attack from a new breed of bigots and fundamentalists – headed by the Labour government...

Away with all our superstitions!

This article is an edited version of a talk given at a Workers/CPBML public meeting held in London in February.

The British version of the Communist anthem the Internationale is unique. The original French simply says "Make a clean sweep of the past", and so, more or less, do other versions. The fight against superstition, against unreason, is more deeply rooted in Britain and its history than in any other country.

We see examples of superstitions all around us, most of it harmless. But a lot is far from harmless, linked to an attack on industry and science.

Many of the world's finest scientists were people with religious belief – Galileo, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, for example. But like all proper scientists they didn't let their beliefs get in the way of their science, and they didn't let religion stop them.

Religion is an organised, structured hierarchy that seeks control. Given free rein, religions want to control everything: what you read, what you say, when and what you eat and drink; and they want even more to control your children.

Look what happened to John Wycliffe, who committed the unpardonable sin of translating the Bible into English, the language of the people, so that they could read it and have it read to them. He said that the Bible, rather than the Church, was the sole authority on what was right and what was wrong. Worse, he did it during the period of intense class antagonism that followed on from the Black Death and culminated in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.

A year after the suppression of the revolt, the Church declared his theories heretical, leading to a ban on his translated Bible – which had been hand copied by an army of Oxford scholars, 16 copies, an extraordinary venture of organised resistance to orthodoxy.

Wycliffe died in 1384, but the Church gnawed and fretted over his influence. In 1428, with the Archbishop of Canterbury looking on, his bones were exhumed, then burnt, then thrown into a river.

The next translator of the Bible into English, William Tyndale, wisely did it from the Continent, but paid with his life anyway in Belgium, after he had translated the New Testament into glorious English, the St James version. But change was in the air.

When Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509, the Catholic Church held a central place in the governance of England, with bishops chosen by the Pope, its own courts, control of the entire education system, such as it was, and occupying the centre of much legal and social life, especially in the countryside.

By the end of the 1500s, a lot had changed. The monasteries were swept away, and along with them swathes of corruption and vice. The church was no longer ruled from a foreign country. Public schools were set up to be outside the control of the monasteries, hence public. And a Bible in English meant that now you didn't have to know Latin in order to read it – and criticise it.

Five hundred years ago, we dealt with our own home grown mullahs. By the way, what's so wrong with Islamophobia? Hating people for their religion is wrong, but what's wrong about hating a religion, or all religions? What's wrong with hating an idea? It's not atheists who go round stoning people or burning them at the stake.

Church attendance
Where are we 500 years after Henry VIII? We started the 21st century with a census which, for the first time, required people to state what their religion was. 71.6% of the population describe themselves as Christian. The next largest section is "No religion" 15.5% , 7.3% refused to answer, 2.7% said they were Muslim, 1% Hindu, 0.6% Sikh, 0.5% Jewish.

A major opinion poll in 2000, however, found two-thirds people between 18 and 24 said they had no religious affiliation – and all of them would, by law, have been subjected to a "daily act of worship" at school – introduced by the Thatcher government and maintained by this one. A 2004 poll found that 44% of UK citizens believe in God, while 35% don't – presumably the rest are not sure.

The disparity between the census and the poll data has been put down to what's called "cultural Christianity", whereby many who don't believe in God still identify with the religion they were brought up in. Britain is one of the least religious countries in the world. An avowed atheist can be elected to union posts, a council, or parliament. Nobody cares.

We also started the century with an attempt to outlaw criticism of religion. So why, given our past and our present, are religions and superstition making a comeback? Why have we just had an education secretary who belongs to Opus Dei and a prime minister who prays with George Bush?

The superstition that religion is somehow nice needs to be laid to rest. Just a glance at the Bible or the Koran reveals grisly calls for slaughter and oppression of women.

Consider the opposite of religion – science. The development of trade and industry that led to the industrial revolution changed thought to a staggering degree, and in turn was changed by thought. It couldn't be anything other. In feudal agriculture, success or failure was often in the hands of inanimate forces – climate, pests, disease. But when you are making a wheel, or a barrel, or a sword, rational thought is in control. That combination of industry and rational thought equalled a unique contribution to science in the 17th century.

Britain's first great scientist was Francis Bacon, born in 1561, ten years after the law about compulsory church attendance. Bacon invented scientific observation. It had two parts: first, the mind must be freed of superstition and prejudice, the idols, he called them. Then the constructive side: record what's there, to what degree, and what isn't. Bacon became Lord Chancellor. Compare this with Italy, where around the same time Galileo was forced to recant his scientific observation and spend the last ten years of his life under house arrest.

Back to Britain. In the 17th century British science really took off: Newton, Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle – all of them described scientific laws that are still used today. And the British scientists started to get organised. At first informally, and then, in 1660, a dozen of them got together after a lecture by Christopher Wren and formed the Royal Society. Five years later they started the Philosophical Transactions, now the world's oldest scientific journal in continuous publi-cation. The Royal Society is still a powerful voice against superstition.

The materialist tradition in Britain was strong by then, and grew stronger with the Industrial Revolution.

Image of witchcraft
Image of witchcraft – swap a few things around and it's not too far from the green fundamentalist view of science!
Lunar Society
The best example of the link between science and industry is the think tank of the industrial revolution, the Birmingham Lunar society. In the 1770s, Erasmus Darwin helped set up this social club for the great scientists and industrialists of the day. The society met at full moon, supposedly so that they could find their way home afterwards. They called themselves lunatics, but they were far from mad.

Members of the society included Joseph Priestley (the discoverer of oxygen and inventor of the indiarubber eraser and carbonated water), Matthew Boulton ("the creator of Birmingham") and a number of other eminent inventors and engineers.

In Britain today, our scientific heritage, our way of looking at the world, is under threat from four distinct but often allied fronts. The religious bigots, who seek to run our education system and mould the minds of our children; the straight anti-science bigots, green fundamentalists and the animal rights extremists, who think that science is evil and progress is bad; the anti-medicine freaks, who are so anti-vaccine that they have caused a measles epidemic in Britain and, finally, from deindustrialisation.

Education is a vital area for the churches. They believe that they can control how people think, which is an illusion. They know that they can force people into church by tying admissions criteria to church attendance. And there are so many different churches, sects, mosques, synagogues, all trying to use the education system to get their claws into the country's children. Blair and Kelly have encouraged this, through the new sponsored academies.

The great split between Catholic and Protestant was of enormous significance in the liberation of thought that took place from the 16th century on. However, the Bible itself became a new form of dogmatism – for those who held that it represented the only truth. That negative aspect has never gone away and it is there in the Bible belt of the US, where Protestant fundamentalists are waging their war against science.

That same fundamentalism has found an echo in the fringe remnants of Protestantism in Britain, and in the cults imported from Africa – like the one that nearly killed the 8-year-old girl from Angola who was thought to be a witch. It has found an echo also in Islam, when in February some Muslim medical students at Guy's Hospital circulated leaflets dismissing Darwin's theories as false. You have to hope they don't end up as your doctor.

One of the saddest aspects of this anti-science drive is that Britain has fewer aspiring scientists. In the six years leading up to December 2004, 79 science and engineering departments were closed. Just a day after Newcastle was named "city of science" by Gordon Brown, its university said it was closing its pure physics course. Sussex University is trying to close its famous chemistry department in a move being opposed by its students and academics internal and external.

But the universities are under pressure. Science is expensive, and the pool of potential scientists is drying up alarmingly. Last year the Royal Society gave evidence to the government that A level entries in 2004 were, relative to 1991, 16% lower in Chemistry, and 22% lower in Mathematics and 34% down for Physics. In January the Royal Society of Chemistry warned of the threat to Scottish science due to a lack of chemistry teachers.

Part of the anti-science movement is not related to religion, at least, not formally: the green fundamentalists who think progress is a bad thing. They have fanned out into quasi-sect-like bodies that attack any kind of vaccine. Vaccines have eliminated smallpox from the world, and are about to eliminate polio. How can that be a bad thing?

They also attack GM crops with a quasi religious mania, matched only by the Animal Liberation Front. In their attack they feed off ignorance. Eating GM crops means eating DNA! Well, it does, of course. You eat genes every time you eat a carrot, organic or GM. Or anything that once had life.

There are huge commercial interests behind GM, but given that rural women in sub-Saharan Africa spend 80 per cent of their waking lives weeding, perhaps crops manipulated to be resistant to pesticides might not, in principle, be a bad idea. The problem with the green fundamentalists is that to them all progress is bad. Most of them don't listen, and don't debate. Yet they have tremendous power. Look at what happened to Shell when it tried to dispose of a disused oil platform, Brent Spar, in the north-east Atlantic in 1995. It got crucified.

And then it turned out that Greenpeace had got its figures wrong, claiming there were 5,500 tonnes of oil still in the platform. Shell said there were 50 tonnes, and no one believed them. An independent survey proved the real figure was between 75 and 100 tonnes, or less than 2% of the Greenpeace estimate.

But Shell was forced by worldwide boycotts into an alternative disposal that was far more environmentally hazardous than its original plan.

Many of the green fundamentalists persist in their opposition to nuclear power, saying instead that "alternative energy sources" will do the trick, which is patently nonsense. Even the green guru and founder of the Gaia movement, James Lovelock, recognises this. Patrick Moore, the American, not the astronomer but one of the founders of Greenpeace, told a US congressional subcommittee in April last year: "Some of the features of this environmental extremism are: environmental extremists tend to be anti-human. Humans are characterised as a cancer on the earth."

Anything chemical is bad, we are told, although we ourselves are built on chemicals. When Rachel Carson wrote her classic book Silent Spring in 1962, it led to a worldwide ban on DDT, despite the lack of evidence then or since that DDT properly applied was damaging human or bird health. Yet the worldwide ban on it has led to the unnecessary death, from malaria, of at least a million children in India alone.

The fourth and final attack – perhaps the most significant – on our scientific heritage and our tradition of rational thought is from the deindustrialisation of Britain.

One of the great capitalist superstitions is the idea that the City "creates wealth". It doesn't create anything. It lives off wealth created elsewhere.

Are we changing from a nation that made its living through making things, through interaction with material reality, to a nation that makes its living through financial wheeler-dealing, where fortunes are made from speculation and futures, money out of crops that have never been sown, ores that have never been mined? From a nation that needed science and rationalism to survive and grow to one whose economy is sinking, and which will drag us back to superstition?

As communists, we call on people to see life as it really is, not clouded by superstition. Reclaim our heritage. Away with all your superstitions!