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Religious Socialism: Definition, Theory & Criticism

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

You may have heard of socialism, but religious socialism's unique. In this lesson, we're going to see how religion and socialism can interact and examine arguments for and against this theory.

Socialism and Religion

We don't often expect planning for the afterlife and economic planning to be related concepts. It's not that there isn't a precedent for this, as far back as ancient Egypt people saw their economic actions and position in the afterlife as connected, but it's something that's less common in the modern world. At least, for some people it is.

One of the world's major economic-political ideologies is socialism, a system in which the production and distribution of goods is organized by a highly centralized government but controlled by the workers. The point of socialism is to ensure that the workers get a fair share of the value of their labor, and to put the benefits of industry back into society in a way that benefits everyone. There are countless variations and iterations of socialism, which is much more fluid and flexible than its cousins Marxism and Communism, and some people have even turned to their spiritual beliefs to advance socialist causes. A doctrine which blends socialist and religious ideologies is known as religious socialism. In general, religious socialism supports the idea that your economic decisions in this life can have important impacts on the afterlife.

Religious Socialism

Religious socialism is a broad theory, based loosely on the idea that some religious systems are compatible with socialism. As with the socialism itself, religious socialism largely rose out of the industrial revolutions of the 19th century. Socialists saw industrialization as stripping the workers of their agency and control over the value of their own labor. They believed that industrial capitalism, with no government regulation, was bad for society and oppressive of the poor.

Socialism shares a devotion to welfare with most major religions
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Socialism emerged with a focus on the welfare of the poor and the overall health of society. It was often moralistic, looking to create a stronger and better set of morals for society, and believed in the use of a centralized authority to distribute resources and welfare. Most of the world's religions embrace similar policies, from the focus on elevating the poor to welfare to the role of a central authority. Thus, religious socialism emerged from the pairing of these shared beliefs, as a way to promote and spread socialist ideologies within religious societies.

Socialism is a flexible doctrine, so there is no single theory of religious socialism. Instead, we see the concept of religious socialism applied to a variety of the world's major religions. Christian socialism was first advanced in the 19th century by philosophers and ministers alike who saw laissez-faire industrial capitalism as failing the Christian mandate to shelter and protect the poor. To them, socialism offered a chance to put the lessons of Christ into practice on a national scale.

Rev. Franklin Spalding, an early proponent of Christian socialism in the United States
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In Islamic socialism, scholars built upon the fundamental Islamic mandates of charity and hospitality. In fact, Islamic governments of West Asia and North Africa had been implementing what we'd basically call welfare states as far back as the 7th century. A centralized government collected taxes and other resources, and redistributed them among those who could not work for the mutual betterment of society.

Buddhist socialism focuses more on the shared concept of alleviating suffering (both personal and social) through welfare and selflessness. In fact, even the current Dalai Lama has publically embraced socialism as an ideology compatible with Buddhist beliefs. In all three of these religions, socialism is seen as an institutionalization of the religion mandates of selflessness, empathy, and devotion to better society.

Criticisms of Religious Socialism

If religious socialism is so great, why hasn't it spread around the world yet? Well, many people have concerns with it. For one, religion and socialism aren't always seen as compatible. While the ideas of a religion like charity and empathy may support socialism, the actual structures of the religion may not. Karl Marx was famously decried religion as the opiate of the masses, something used to placate the workers and keep them contented and submissive. Marx's critique was aimed more at society and its use of religion than actual religion itself, but the idea remains that the hierarchical structures of religions may not always meld seamlessly with socialism's own infrastructures.

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