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Workers’ Conception of Religion (1890)

In the last third of the nineteenth century, issues of popular piety and church attendance attracted the attention of politicians, social reformers, and statisticians, all of whom were sensitive to differences in the behavior of Protestant and Catholic workers. To experience working-class life first-hand, Paul Göhre (1864-1928), a Protestant pastor and social reformer, spent three months undercover as a factory worker in Chemnitz, a large industrial city in the Kingdom of Saxony. He published his observations in the book Three Months in a Workshop [Dreieinhalb Monate Fabrikarbeiter und Handwerksbursche]. In the following excerpt, Göhre describes workers’ views on religion. According to Göhre, they saw the church—in Saxony, the Protestant Church in particular—as siding with the interests of the state, with capitalism, and with the enemies of the Jews. For workers, the church was an obstacle to social reform. Many of them referred to it as a “stupefying” institution [Verdummungsanstalt]. Göhre was clearly appalled that workers no longer had “the slightest consciousness of guilt or sin.” In describing their suspicion of church institutions, however, he wrongly suggests that the working classes had become impious and indifferent to religion altogether.

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Towards the end of my stay in the factory, I once asked a man directly how he felt about religion and Christianity. I knew he was an ardent social democrat, but he was good-nature and politeness itself, a genuine Saxon. He had once been in the household of an attorney-at-law for whom he had done many little extra services, in return for which, besides his pay, the attorney had lent him all kinds of books on geography, science, and history, whose exact titles he could not give me. He answered my frank question with equal frankness, honestly, and to the point. “I don’t talk much about those things, and I never argue about them. I let everybody think as he likes, but I have my own opinion, and it is – Where you can’t find out anything, there’s nothing to find out. That’s the end of it!”

He was more amiable than another man of the same stamp, a weaver of our suburb, and, to judge by appearances, on very small pay. I met him one evening in the Turnhalle I have mentioned. The man was what is usually called an all-round athlete; a fine powerful fellow with a splendid figure evenly developed. At the end of the exercise hour I went with him to a quiet saloon near by, a favourite resort with all of us, to get a glass of beer. He was a clever fellow, fanatically devoted to the cold water cure, and to social democracy, and one of the leaders in the large class of Chemnitz weavers who were suffering real distress without apparently getting much consideration from their employers. He talked to me a great deal about the wage struggle as it had gone on, and in which he had taken a prominent part, earnestly, impersonally, and with the calmness peculiar to so many among the people. I gradually led the talk to religious topics, and asked for his opinion. It was brief, concise, and consistently social-democratic. The Church, he said, was merely a State institution very well devised for stultifying the people; but it ought not to be abolished, only thoroughly reconstructed. It ought to be so managed as to teach and preach natural science.

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