By Emily Dong.
America is supposed to be the greatest country on earth. Its Western values of competition, individualism, and capitalism have advanced science and technology, produced high levels of luxury, and dictated the world. But it has ultimately produced a decadent society reaching its stagnant collapse today. It’s an extremely wealthy country with poverty levels that never significantly decrease year after year. Rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide, especially among young people, only go up. There’s an overwhelming feeling of standstillness, and many Americans question if it’s worth bringing children into this world or what there is to look forward to next year.
A stark sign of a decadent, dying society is the activism in this country. Activism is where you should find the most progressive, positive, and productive energy, but today it is heavy with nihilism. Young people who are eager for change are unsure of what change would mean. They head to schools and universities looking for meaning and mentorship, only to be misled and grow disillusioned by dire job prospects, dreams defined by whiteness, and alienating individualism.
The most devastating effect of this society is the death of a positive vision for our future. With a reliance on Western rationality, ideals of selflessness and sacrifice are so foreign to us. Truth and morality are forgotten principles and standards for guiding our actions and giving meaning to our lives. This is why in the ashes of World War II, facing a crisis of a collapsing Western civilization and great uncertainty about the future of the world, Du Bois insisted that what we need is “a new religion”:
“The day has dawned when above a wounded, tired earth unselfish sacrifice, without sin and hell, may join thorough technique, shorn of ruthless greed, and make a new religion, one with new knowledge, to shout from old hills of heaven: Go down, Moses!”
What we need today is this new religion, one that raises a new set of high ideals for humanity that can guide, develop, and inspire people. Proclaiming the need for a new religion feels like it goes against our understanding of social progress. Social planning is more associated with the scientific method than emotions of compassion and justice. But that is the problem. People also need higher ideals of truth and morality, not just to guide actions for the benefit of all humanity but to inspire people to live lives full of meaning and hope.
In “Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” Martin Luther King Jr. emphasizes that a life whole with purpose can only be made complete after achieving all three dimensions: love of self, love of others, and love of God. It is not enough to stop at loving yourself or even other people. A complete life requires you to understand and be committed to the truth, which is the belief that there is a higher law of human morality and righteousness, no matter what laws on earth may say is right and wrong. King calls the third dimension God, and once you are able to achieve this dimension, you have an upward motive that gives you the strength, clarity, and courage to do what is right for the world.
This third dimension of God is especially important today. Without higher ideals, protests today are often reactions against injustice without a clear, positive vision of what a just world should be. Cynical and pessimistic, young people in their creative prime cannot imagine a new society that radically breaks from what is now. But you need hope and a belief in human beings in order to make change. Otherwise, individuals themselves do not have the spirit nor the moral clarity to struggle forward.
King talks about his difficulties with staying strong throughout the Civil Rights Movement, especially in the face of white supremacist violence. In “Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” he identifies Sister Pollard, a seventy-two year old woman from the Black church in Montgomery, who brought him back to the purpose of the freedom struggle to give him strength:
“And then [Sister Pollard] finally said, ‘Now come close to me and let me tell you something one more time, and I want you to hear it this time.’ She said, ‘Now I done told you we is with you.’ She said, ‘Now, even if we ain’t with you, the Lord is with you.’ And she concluded by saying, ‘The Lord’s going to take care of you.’”
The masses of people who joined the Civil Rights Movement and walked with King despite horrific violence did so because they saw and were moved by higher ideals of morality. To struggle against segregation and for the freedom of Black people and thus all humanity is morally right. Once you understand that, nothing can get in your way. It’s why Sister Pollard says that even if the masses of people were not behind King, he had to obey this higher law of morality and do what is right. God, or the truth, would always be on his side.
The moral truth gives people immense courage. Fame or proving how “radical” you are could never move you to do something as courageous and grueling as refusing to ride segregated buses in Montgomery and instead walking miles to and from work. In the darkest hours of human struggle, it is not logic that convinces you to continue on. When life is filled with tragedy, confusion, and deep disappointments, it is the truth of what is right and wrong that gives you the strength to overcome challenges and change the world for the better. These are the high ideals found in the Black church and in movements anchored in morality.
High ideals and the truth also instill your life with meaning and purpose, and this is what young people need today. Whether you go to a prestigious college or not, people are not taught a moral foundation that connects them to humanity, past and present, and gives them a great purpose in pushing this world forward. What they need is an education of the human heart, which Du Bois said is best found in the Black church, not primary schools or universities. The church is not solely a religious entity. It is a key social force in the community where young people are instilled with the morals of living fully and responsibly. They are surrounded by elders who are aspiring towards the same moral purpose. Most importantly, in the church you find a deliberate, systematic development of ethics and moral consciousness in young people.
Today’s young activists who look up to the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense for its militant image are often eager to dismiss God and religion. But Huey P. Newton pinpointed the Black church as a microcosm of what social action should look like:
“Here was a microcosm of what ought to have been going on outside in the community. I had the first glimmer of what it means to have a unified goal that involves the whole community and calls forth the strengths of the people to make things better […] Even though it was entirely directed to God and did not go beyond the meeting, it suggested how powerful and moving it can be to have a shared sense of purpose.”
He expressed how when everyone in the congregation prayed for each other, there was a singular feeling of community, where everyone was involved in each other’s problems and ready to help solve them. For Newton, understanding the importance of the church and religion had “nothing to do with a personal system of belief, but rather an awareness of what religious action can or ought to be.” What you see in a congregation so strongly bound by the collective purpose of improving the community is what all of our country’s culture should emulate. It is a spirit of selflessness to help that is rare to find today, and an education rarely taught to young people.
To dismiss religion is to dismiss the necessity for young people to have guidance on how to live. It is dooming young people to search and fail without a foundation in history and what it means to be a human being. The dismissal of religious institutions like the Black church perpetuates a devastating ignorance of how much young people need the moral guidance and discipline to become conscious human beings connected to the world. What we need is actually a new religion that develops young peoples’ hearts and gives them meaning in this world: to live according to the truth, moral righteousness, and to contribute towards a better world.
Ho Chi Minh explains the problem that inflicts many white leftists today, who may be well-read in Marxist theory but are uneducated in morality and in their own humanity:
“…Some comrades only learn by heart a few books on Marxism-Leninism. They think they understand Marxism-Leninism better than anyone else. Yet, when faced with practical problems, they either act in a mechanical way or are thrown into confusion. Their deeds do not match their words. They study books on Marxism-Leninism but do not seek to acquire the Marxist-Leninist spirit.”
In thinking of how to raise a new generation of revolutionaries ready to defend the Vietnamese people’s self-determination against vicious imperialism, Ho Chi Minh didn’t insist on young people learning Marx but instead emphasized a moral education first. He stressed a revolutionary moral education for young people that would “teach them to build socialism both ‘ethically’ and ‘professionally’ […] It is very necessary to educate and train revolutionary ethics for the future generation.”
Young people who do not have the moral clarity nor ideological strength to struggle for a new world are incapable of facing confusion, uncertainty, disappointments, and antagonistic forces. Ho Chi Minh emphasizes that people must be transformed in the process of taking responsibility for humanity in order to transform society, above all which must be the growth of an internal spirit and sense of purpose for humanity:
“To make the revolution, to transform the old society into a new one is a very glorious, but also extremely heavy task, a complex, protracted and hard struggle. Only a strong man can travel a long distance with a heavy load on his back. A revolutionary must have a solid foundation of revolutionary morality in order to fulfil his glorious revolutionary task.”
Ho Chi Minh’s emphasis on moral development is similar to the education of the human heart and spirit of moral purpose found in the Black church that Du Bois and Huey P. Newton identified. What all three are saying is that we actually need more of what religion has historically done—moral education—in order to raise good revolutionaries who can transform society.
For darker peoples of the world, the significance of moral consciousness found in religion is not something separated from politics. Morality and an education in ethics are often at the heart of darker civilizations. And ideals of selflessness combined with the deliberate development of people along these ideals have been placed at the heart of the great revolutions of dark peoples.
When speaking of the Cuban Revolution and the great task Cubans have to build a better society, Fidel references the importance of moral ideals found in Christianity in successfully raising a new country:
“…a new society has to create a new consciousness. A socialist revolutionary process has to create a new human being also. In essence, that new human being has to express much more solidarity, be much more selfless, to look on all others as brothers. Sometimes, in capitalism, not even blood brothers respect or love each other. We postulate something to which the Christian doctrine also subscribes: the brotherhood of all people, solidarity, selflessness and generosity, to which we add a high education, advanced technical training, national dignity, and an internationalist approach.”
Fidel always points to the importance of moral consciousness not only because a better society must have morality but because the only way for a transformed society to be born is if the very people creating this society have transformed into new human beings filled with and motivated by selfless ideals. Revolutionary ideals of brotherhood, solidarity, sacrifice, and charity are values Fidel says you find in a religion like Christianity. There is a positive idealism best found in religions that revolutionaries like Fidel understand to be crucial and irreplaceable in building a new humanity. In the exact vein of Du Bois’s explanation of a new religion, Fidel emphasizes the need for canalizing morality and combining it with science, education, technical training, and internationalism. Together, a new religion for humanity can evolve us into new human beings prepared and disciplined enough to transform this world.
Ultimately, to dismiss religion is to dismiss a way of life of the majority of people on this earth. Those who are serious about change have to always strive towards getting closer to the people and understanding the substance of human beings. And there is a reason why almost all the darker peoples of the world are found in organized religion and other religious communities. Fidel said that the most important quality and training for revolutionaries is to love and believe in human beings:
“I think that you can’t be a revolutionary without a large dose of idealism and tremendous confidence in human beings. A skeptic can’t be a revolutionary. A revolutionary is an optimist, someone who believes in human beings. […] That is why I have always been inclined to put more faith in moral factors, in the conscience of human beings, because I’ve seen what they are capable of achieving.”
What we need right now is more idealism, not less: higher strivings that inspire deliberate action and a confidence in humanity’s capacity to be better. Creative potential has always come from religion, found in the masses of darker peoples around the world. With a stagnant, collapsing, decadent society, we not only have to take seriously but desperately need a new religion of humanity that can breathe productive, progressive creativity into our society. It’s a new religion that inspires people forward in depressing times, and raises new human beings with humanity in their hearts and morally courageous to take on the difficult task of creating a new world.
- W.E.B. Du Bois, Color and Democracy
- Martin Luther King, Jr., Three Dimensions of a Complete Life
- Huey P. Newton, Revolutionary Suicide
- Ho Chi Minh, On Revolutionary Morality