Give me that Old Time Religion, it’s good enough for me – and you.

The Quaker meeting house in Kingston-upon-Thames

Socialists need to reconnect with religion

By Philip Hall

I’ve recently decided to become a Quaker. I went to a Quaker boarding school in North Yorkshire when I was a boy and hated the skinheads there, but loved the silences. The Quakers are extremely progressive. Christianity can be quite as profound as the most profound Eastern philosophy.

From St John of the Cross

To reach satisfaction in all desire its possession in nothing.

To come to possession in all desire the possession of nothing.

To arrive at being all desire to be nothing.

To come to the knowledge of all desire the knowledge of nothing.

To come to the pleasure you have not you must go by the way in which you enjoy not.

To come to the knowledge you have not you must go by the way in which you know not.

To come to the possession you have not you must go by the way in which you possess not.

To come by the what you are not you must go by a way in which you are not.

When you turn toward something you cease to cast yourself upon the all.

For to go from all to the all you must deny yourself of all in all.

Translation by Kieran Kavanaugh

What are the benefits of religion?

Religion can transform us into moral actors. It anchors us in history. It is co-operative and collective philanthropy. Our religion, whichever that may be, gives us access to a well spring of values. Religion is the secret skeleton key that opens up art and culture.

Theology and philosophy are intertwined like snakes on the staff of Caduceus. Our religion offers us the low hanging fruit of profound introspections carried out into the nature of life and reality by many thinkers like St Augustine, St Francis, Thomas Aquinas, Spinoza, and even Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

By embracing religion every chapel, church and cathedral in the world becomes yours and every mosque and temple becomes a place where your cousins go to worship.

By embracing religion every chapel, church and cathedral in the world becomes yours and every mosque and temple becomes a place where your cousins go to worship.

The meaning of everything changes when you choose to become a spiritual practitioner rather than a mere spectator. When you practice your religion collectively and responsibly and hold faith with its principles of equality and service and social justice religion becomes deeply political. Tony Benn understood. The Jesuits in Latin America have fought for indigenous rights from the moment they reached the Americas.


The vaulting ceiling of Notre Dame, Wikimedia commons

An atheist misses the point. An atheist might walk to Notre Dame and remark on the amazing flying buttresses and the abundance of sculptural decoration. The flying buttresses, of course, carry the weight of the structure, allowing the walls to be higher and thinner giving the interior a sense of open space. The use of six part rib vaults means the ceilings are higher in Notre Dame than in other cathedrals and there is more light at the altar thanks to the larger transepts.

An atheist might be moved by the beauty of the Rose window and note that Notre Dame was one of the three most important buildings in Paris. He sees that Napoleon was crowned here and an English king and that Notre Dame contains many pieces of great art: tapestries, carvings, beautiful inlay and work in gold, paintings.

But all this is not the essence of Notre Dame.

My mother was born in the Marais, from where, she told me, you can see the cathedral. We planned a holiday to France, my family and I. However, just before the holiday I was called away to my mother’s death bed in South Africa.

My family went ahead, and left to Paris. They were terribly sad, but they went. My wife decided that they would pray for my mother so they went to the nearest church, which happened to be Notre Dame. They went into Notre Dame and lit a candle and prayed there for an hour or so for my mother. We found out later that it was in that hour she died.

Notre Dame’s essence is that it has a purpose, a use.

Nine hundred years ago someone else was in Notre Dame praying for the soul of someone they loved, and any Catholic, from anywhere in the world feels at home in all Catholic churches, chapels and cathedrals everywhere. There is a unity of worship in the church that has arisen across time and space. Catholics put their religion to good use.

A cathedral like Notre Dame is to be inhabited by collective prayer, not to be examined at arms length with a quizzical expression.

Choose the religion of your community

I once witnessed an interesting argument. Culturally, from nose to toes, Nadeem is a Muslim. Isaac, on the other hand converted to Islam. Now, there is a very good reason for everyone who is religious and a monotheist to convert to Islam and that is Tawhid. Christianity is a little messed up by the nonsense of the trinity and there is always someone or other in front of you ‘interpreting’ God to you.

Islam puts it more simply. For example, even the house of the Prophet is demolished in Mecca because to worship a human being is shirk. Islam says that there is God on the one hand and then there is what God created. Nothing can or should be worshipped except God. You may venerate and respect Mohammed and the Virgin Mary and Abraham and Jesus, but you must never worship them. Never worship the presence of God in yourself or God in another human being either because he just isn’t there.

Tawhid gives you an enormous freedom. All Muslims are created equal and they are all buried in the same way; in a clean winding sheet in the sand or the earth. It doesn’t matter how powerful or influential you are, your body goes into the ground unclothed.

The freedom that Islam gives you is an immediate and direct relationship with God the creator which is only filtered through the word of the creator, which is the Koran. This gives people enormous scope because what it does is say that there is nothing between you and your God and whatever happens between you and God is immediate, all encompassing and utterly intimate. There is no Jesus to melt your heart, just the infinite omnipotent, omniscience.

Isaac read all about this in Cheam and chose Islam, despite the fact that he came from Cheam, because he was a lucid and rational man and rather alienated. He certainly paid his dues. He went to Medina and lived there for years studying the Koran from the age of 18. He shared a room with six other students and survived in Medina on a pittance. His Arabic is almost perfect, though it is only Fus’ha, not the common speech of Arabia.

Isaac and Nadeem liked the same Islamic scholar. The name of the scholar escapes me, but Nadeem is a Muslim by culture and Isaac a Muslim by conversion and Nadeem is older and complicated and contradictory and he regards Isaac with suspicion.

Isaac regarded Nadeem with annoyance. What is the difference between Isaac’s Islam and Nadeem’s? I would say that Nadeem’s Islam is far more profound and that Isaac’s Islam is oversimplified because, t some extent, it ignores the cultural and social dimension of Islam.

No matter how educated and intense and hard fought for his knowledge of Islam is, it is still shallower in comparison with Nadeem’s because Nadeem is a Muslim by culture. Isaac would claim that his idea of Islam is ‘purer’ and closer to the fundamentals of his religion, but simplification is not purity.

For me, the point is that we need to pick low hanging fruit. If we have religious instincts we should be more like Nadeem and less like Isaac. We should reach for what is closest to us, what is only a breath away; for our lapsed Christianity, not for some creed, written in a language that takes most people a lifetime to master.

Remember the awful spiritual poverty of the USSR

When the Soviets stripped Russia, and many other countries, of religion in the name of progress they didn’t understand that they were stripping off a living, breathing part of people’s lives.

They were, however, aware that they were destroying a competing value system. There was no freedom of belief for the Soviet people in the western part of the USSR. The Soviets behaved like Tsar Peter, whom they admired. But while Tsar Peter ordered that in the name of progress all men had to shave off their beards the Soviets ordered everyone to abandon God, a great beating heart of Russian culture and life.

Religion, to the Soviets, was there for the rich to keep the poor in their place, an instrument of the oppressor, so they banned it and set up museums of atheism and religion where they mocked people’s beliefs.

In so doing the Soviets left a religion sized hole that could not be filled by science or hero worship. It could not be filled by evolutionary theory. It was a hole that could not even be filled by the glorification of work. Not even the greatest achievements of humanity sufficed; nor art, romantic love or philanthropy.

There was no replacement for religion and when it was removed. What flowed into its place instead was vodka and a form of WWII patriotism; a cult of the worship of dead heroes.

Socialists need to fight back against right-wing evangelism

Through religion, as a form of concerted political action, we could also organise a fight back against the mad and bad right wing bowdlerisers of spirituality who try to shape it into an ideological defense of the American dream and capitalism.

Bad people don’t abandon religion, they use it as a weapon. Good people shouldn’t abandon it either. We can’t leave the running to nutcases like Trump’s Paula White and her ‘angels dispatched from Africa’.

We need to stop being religious tourists, spiritual spectators and non-combatants. Socialists need to reconsider the question of how they deal with spiritual matters, and start by standing up for the progressive elements of religion – by putting some skin in the game.

I said to my Catholic wife that I would like to be a Catholic. She blanched, grimaced and answered:

‘I am a Catholic because I was born a Catholic. If I were born something else I would be something else. You should look for your own thing.’

So, I have decided to join the Quakers instead. I went to a Quaker boarding school in the north for years. I love Quaker silences. That’s the community of belief for me – and they are very progressive on Palestine.


Post script: After I published the article on different socialist group sites the reaction was an eye opener. The level of intolerance towards religious people seems very high. While the Labour Party and other organisations seem concerned with reducing anti-Muslim prejudice and anti-Semitism many of the people who consider themselves to be socialists and supporters of socialism express strongly anti-religious views. These views serves to disguise their anti-Semitism, their anti-Muslim feeling and their anti-Catholicism. A vituperative attack on ‘all religion’ is their cipher for an attack on Muslims and Catholics; this despite the fact that many Muslims and Catholics identify themselves as socialists. Anti-Catholicism, while seeming justified after many abuse scandals, has a long and shameful past in the UK since the Reformation. On several websites the moderators seem to have shared the intolerant view on religion of the people posting below the line. I was contacted privately and thanked by several Christians who felt that as socialists they had been ignored, sidelined or insulted.


Phil Hall is a university lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.