On the Origins of Religion

On the Origins of Religion

We start with a quote from Engels who writes that…

religion arose in very primitive times from erroneous, primitive conceptions of men about their own nature and external nature surrounding them. Every ideology, however, once it has arisen, develops in connection with the given concept-material, and develops this material further otherwise it would not be an ideology, that is, occupation with thoughts as with independent entities, developing independently and subject only to their own laws. That the material life conditions of the persons inside whose heads this thought process goes on in the last resort determine the course of this process remains of necessity unknown to these persons, for otherwise their would be an end to all ideology. These original religious notions, therefore, which in the main are common to each group of kindred peoples, develop, after the group separates in a manner peculiar to each people, according to the conditions of life falling to their lot. [1]

The historical development of ideology as a function of the ‘material life conditions of persons’ remains a closed book to those ‘inside whose heads the thought process goes on’. It takes on the appearance of an independent, autonomous development, detached from ‘material life conditions’. In the final analysis, it is the development of these conditions which determines the changes in, and general course of development of, a given ideology. Changes in material and social relations and conditions stand as the source of modifications in the ‘concept-material’ of ideology.

In a letter to Franz Mehring, Engels again goes into this, but this time referring more directly and explicitly to the thinking individual…

Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, it is true, but with a false consciousness. The real motive forces impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it simply would not be an ideological process. He imagines false or seeming motive forces. Because it is a process of thought he derives its form as well as its content from pure thought, either his own or that of his predecessors. He works with mere thought material, which he accepts without examination as the product of thought, and does not investigate further for a more remote source independent of thought; Indeed this is a matter of course for him because as all action is mediated by thought, it appears to him to be ultimately based upon thought. [2]

Ideology is a process carried out consciously but is, nevertheless, ‘a false consciousness’ involving the imagining of ‘seeming and false motives’. Ideology appears to develop according to its ‘own laws’ detached from, and bearing no relation to, social conditions and relationships. Ideologically-thinking human beings do not seek to discover ‘a more remote source independent of thought’ for the understanding of ideology. Indeed, ideological thought identifies thought itself ultimately as its own basis in contrast, at the earliest stages of human existence, to the primordial relation of humanity to nature within the movement of which…

the unknown elements of the natural environment made necessary for the savage and barbarian, the idea of a god. [3]

The critique of religion was vital for the development of Marx’s overall conception because it re-located the conception of humanity away from the theological (as with Hegel and his predecessors) into its secular historical humanistic context. It enabled Marx to re-orientate the conception of social development around the central axis of humanity’’s relationship with nature and demonstrate that religion itself was a ‘transcendental’ ‘ideological’ product of this relationship within which the…

mist-enveloped regions of the religious world…..the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race (Vol. 1, Capital, p.77, Lawrence & Wishart, 1974).

so that…

Man is governed by the products of his own brain. (Ibid, p. 582).

Only under certain historical conditions does man bow down and worship his own creation. In the ‘inverted mist-enveloped regions’ of religion, the supplicant thinks of himself as bowing down and worshipping his own creator. Such thinking is itself intrinsic to religious ideology.

Trotsky recalls that…

In his youth, Marx said “The criticism of religion is the basis of all other criticism”. In what sense? In the sense that religion is a kind of fictitious knowledge of the universe. This fiction has two sides: the weakness of man before nature, and the incoherence of social relations. Fearing nature or ignoring it, being unable to analyse social relations or ignoring them, man in society endeavoured to meet his needs by creating fantastic images, endowing them with imaginary reality, and kneeling before his own creations. The basis of this creation lies in the practical need of man to orient himself, which in turn springs from the conditions of the struggle for existence.

Religion is an attempted adaptation to the surrounding environment in order successfully to meet the struggle for existence. In this adaptation there are practical and appropriate rules. But all this is bound up with myths, fantasies, superstitions, unreal knowledge. Just as all culture is the accumulation of knowledge and skill, so is the criticism of religion the foundation for all other criticism. [4]

The life of the earliest human communities was characterised by the most primitive levels of technique and a most rudimentary knowledge of nature. Local conditions and natural forces formed the material basis for religious notions of nature and social phenomena. How was humanity to explain these forces? Earthquakes, the seasons, birth and death, harvest and famine, human qualities and affectations, etc?

To the nomadic troop of hunters with stone axe and spear, natural forces were ‘something alien, mysterious, superior’. Religion comes into being as an attempt to explain these forces i.e. it is a kind of groping after a knowledge of these forces. But it emerges on the basis of a primitive level of technique and knowledge and thus, initially, cannot render a real, comprehensive scientific knowledge of these forces. However, despite this, even religious notions can contain ungerminated seeds of knowledge at this early stage of human development. The fact that different phenomena are ‘understood’ to have different divine ’causes’ displays, implicitly, a primitive notion that different phenomena in nature not only have different causes but that also a real connection exists between them. Therefore, even religious notions may contain an undeveloped, embryonic rational element within them which can only be fully developed when technique has arrived at a more advanced stage of development i.e. where human society has reached a point in its development where the conditions are present for such ‘seeds’ of knowledge to ‘germinate’.

Where knowledge was absent, deficient or minimal, people were compelled to explain these phenomena – both natural and social – on the basis of their scant knowledge. Local divinities and deities were thought to determine and control the daily lives and ‘destinies’ of a community and those of individuals in the community. The first religious conceptions were, therefore, animistic in which natural phenomena were thought to be endowed with and animated by supernatural forces, powers or ‘spirits’. This is why Marx writes that religion was…

from the outset consciousness of the transcendental arising from actually existing forces [5]

It has retained this characteristic even in its most abstract forms. Religious thinking remains a form of consciousness of the transcendental. This is still found in the various philosophical schools which remain connected to religious thinking by theological roots. For example, it finds expression in Plato’s ‘universals’, in Spinoza’s ‘infinite substance’, in Hegel’s ‘absolute idea’, etc. In its more explicitly religious forms, if finds a home in the pantheistic doctrines of Gnosticism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism, etc, in which the substance of the world is identified with the immanance of deity.

Despite its essentially religious nature, pantheism – Albert Einstein was a Spinozist – historically represented a step forward in the human understanding of nature in the sense that it conceptualises the diversity of nature as arising out of, and returning into, its inner unity. Implicit in this conception is, firstly, the recognition of the unity of nature in its infinite diversity and is, as such, an important element in a dialectical notion of nature. Secondly, a primordial notion of the regularity and the law-governed character of natural phenomena albeit through the indwelling presence of a law-giving deity, an impersonal god.

Religious practices (ritual) were thought to bring human beings into relation with these supernatural forces, acting and functioning to mediate the world of humans with the world of the gods. The ‘success’, ‘failure’ or outcome of the ‘communication’ between the two worlds became ‘expressed’ in and through natural and social phenomena which were an intrinsic part of the daily life of a people. For example, poor harvests, no rains, droughts, famine, disease, etc, were believed to be manifestations of the displeasure or anger (human attributes, of course, projected into the deities) of the deities. Contrarily, good harvests, plenty, good health, etc, were considered to be manifestations of divine approval and benevolence, ‘God’s bounty’, etc. The Christian harvest festivals, for example, are a reminder of pagan rituals which have echoed and become altered down the ages, becoming adapted and integrated into Christianity.

Thus, accordingly, in the earliest societies, humanity’s relationship with nature was permeated with superstition. Technique or behaviour that produced or coincided with favourable outcomes in terms of meeting the needs of a people were often given religious significance. These techniques and modes of behaviour, e.g. fire-making, were often attributed to legendary or mythical ancestors (if not to the gods themselves) who, in their turn, acquired such abilities from the gods or deities. The real origins of such techniques and behaviour – lying in the distant past of a people – were themselves often mythologised thereby transferring the real historic origins of a given technique or behaviour into the realms of mythological thought. Such notions were then used to describe the origins of technique and behaviour, etc, for example, in Greek mythology, the story of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods. The Greeks did not grasp that fire-making was a human adaptation taken from nature itself and many thousands of years old and so they sought to explain its origins in mythological terms.

The mythologies and legends of different peoples are the story books of their prehistory which reflect, in the form of fantastic images, the struggles involved in the historic movement away from established property relations towards new relations and, in the course of the unfolding of this process, the rejection of previous modes of human behaviour that were a product of the mode of life determined by the older relations. The overturning of the ‘old’ ways inevitably involved putting everything associated with the ‘old’ ways – including all forms of social behaviour – through a process of socio-cultural transformation. A detailed, historical study of Greek mythology undoubtedly shows that all its stories have real roots in the actual history and ancestry of the people who created those myths and legends. The Greeks were not the only people to personify the forces of nature. Engels writes that..

the correct reflection of nature is extremely difficult, the product of a long history of experience. To primitive man the forces of nature were something alien, mysterious, superior. At a certain stage, through which all civilised peoples passed, he assimilates them by means of personification. It was this urge to personify that created gods everywhere, and the consensus of the peoples, as regards proof of the existence of god, proves after all only the universality of this urge to personify as a necessary transition stage, and consequently the universality of religion too. Only real knowledge of the forces of nature ejects the gods or god from one position after another…..This process has now advanced so far that theoretically it may be considered to be concluded. In the sphere of social phenomena reflection is still more difficult. Society is determined by economic relations, production and exchange, and besides by historical pre-conditions. [6]

The ‘urge to personify that created gods everywhere’ was a universal urge found amongst ‘all civilised peoples’; ‘a certain stage, through which all civilised peoples passed’. At this stage of development, the ‘alien, mysterious, superior’ forces of nature are ‘assimilated by means of personification’. The ‘personification’ of these forces is their ‘false conscious’ assimilation by the projection and attribution of human characteristics. This ‘urge to personify’ reflects the human need to be and feel ‘at home’ in nature, ‘at one’ with nature so to speak, not alienated or estranged from it. Paradoxically, it is precisely this ‘urge to personify’ that is mediated by humanity’s alienation in nature.

Ludwig Feuerbach, in his Essence of Christianity, shows that all religious thinking contains the imprint of its secular human origins. Notions of gods or god have always been characterised, in one form or another, by human attributes showing implicitly that such notions, whatever form they may take, are, taken in their totality, the product of human culture and its attendant forms of consciousness at a definite stage in their historical development. The continuation of religion corresponds to the prevalence of social relations which, in their immanent nature and movement, make religion necessary and demonstrates that social relations have not yet passed into a stage which renders religion unnnecessary. Humanity continues to be ‘governed by the products of his own brain’ (Marx, Capital, Vol 1). Engels describes the origin and historical development of religious thought and practice as…

nothing but the fantastic reflection in men’s minds of those external forces which control their daily life, a reflection in which the terrestrial forces assume the form of supernatural forces. In the beginnings of history it was the forces of nature that were first so reflected, and which in the course of further evolution underwent the most manifold and varied personifications among the various peoples…. But it is not long before, side by side with the forces of nature, social forces begin to be active – forces which confront man as equally alien and at first equally inexplicable, dominating him with the same apparent natural necessity as the forces of nature themselves. The fantastic figures, which at first only reflected the mysterious forces of nature, at this point acquire social attributes, become representatives of the forces of history…. at a still further stage of evolution, all the natural and social attributes of the numerous gods are transferred to one almighty god, who is but a reflection of the abstract man. Such was the origin of monotheism, which was historically the last product of the vulgarised philosophy of the later Greeks and found its incarnation in the exclusively national god of the Jews, Jehovah. In this convenient, handy and universally adaptable form, religion can continue to exist as the immediate, that is, the sentimental form of men’s relation to the alien, natural and social, forces which dominate them, so long as men remain under the control of these forces. [7]

It is scientistically ideological to seek to rationalise away religion when an actual historical basis in the form of bourgeois social relations is mediating its existence and perpetuation. This is the fundamental error which is contained in contemporary debates around the question of the existence or non-existence of god, the legitimacy of this or that religion with its particular credo, etc. Richard Dawkins and others may be very able biologists but their approach – for example in The God Delusion – in regard to their attack on religion in general, falls within the same ideological framework as religion itself. It does not locate the existence of religion within a wider, historical context and perspective and therefore misses the real target in simply discussing the conceptual content of its particulars. Religion can only continue to exist because there are real historical grounds for it and all the scientistic polemic and invective will not in itself eliminate it. Only when social conditions are established which render it increasingly unnecessary, will it begin to wither and die in human relations. This, of course, is not to assert that scientific advances do not erode religion so that ‘real knowledge of the forces of nature ejects the gods or god from one position after another’. Everybody knows how Darwin’s great discoveries have kicked religion in every conceivable place where it hurts. All the other areas of science have done more or less the same. However, even Darwin, Marx, etc, and their successors have not delivered the finishing social blow.

Marx’s critique of religion was the foundation of all later critique. It was not a rationalistic, ideological critique but a revolutionary critique of the social historical conditions which necessarily produce religious thought and sentiment. He wasn’t ‘pointing the finger’, categorising others as ‘being religious’, or ‘irrational’ or trying to beat and batter their religious sentiments out of them by means of ‘rationalistic’ argument, but rather trying to grasp the process of religion’s historical genesis and development. Neither did he critique religion as a sort of self-denying philosophical ordnance to remind himself not to be dogmatic or doctrinaire. Marx’s relationship with religion – as with Hegel and Feuerbach – was a revolutionary critical relation and not a rationalistic one. It was a ‘rational relation’ but not ‘philosophically rationalistic’.

The major problem of the ‘opacity’ of social relations remains. Social relations and phenomena are human creations. They are the outcome of a socio-historical development involving a complexity of forces: economic, social, political, ethical, personal, intellectual, etc, which are distinct yet inseparable aspects of a single process of development. Natural forces, not embracing within themselves the elements of human activity and subjectivity as with social relations, have a greater or more tangible degree of ‘otherness’ and therefore are more accessible to a direct and ‘objective’ understanding than are subject-imbued social relations. The understanding of social relations, forces and phenomena are mediated by subjectively-thinking and acting humans rendering their understanding more difficult. This is the major ontological ground for the continuation of religious thinking and sentiment. Human beings live within the oppressive and painful cauldron of bourgeois relations and religion is one of its necessary products. Marx spoke of religion as being the sigh of the oppressed creature.

The advance of scientific thought does not fundamentally mitigate the psychosocial impact of the capitalist mode of production on the life of the individual. The nature of the social relations of production and circulation of capital tend to compound, accentuate and aggravate the personal problems of the individual. The contradictions of bourgeois society become concentrated, intensified and expressed in the psychosocial life of the individual. Religion is sometimes the only consolation individuals have for the sorrows of life in the existing society….

in existing bourgeois society men are dominated by the economic conditions created by themselves, by the means of production which they themselves have produced, as if by an alien force.

The actual basis of religious reflective activity therefore continues to exist, and with it the religious reflection itself… It is still true that man proposes and god (that is, the alien domination of the capitalist mode of production) disposes. Mere knowledge, even if it went much further and deeper than that of bourgeois economic science, is not enough to bring social forces under the domination of society. What is above all necessary for this is a social act. And when this act has been accomplished, when society, by taking possession of all means of production and using them on a planned basis, has freed itself and all its members from the bondage in which they are now held by these means of production which they themselves have produced but which confront them as an irresistible alien force; when therefore man no longer merely proposes but also disposes – only then will the last alien force which is reflected in religion vanish; and with it will also vanish the religious reflection itself, for the simple reason that there will be nothing left to reflect. [8]

Religion will only start to disappear when humanity establishes real, collective social and planned control over those anarchic social forces of production which currently dominate human life. The emergence of a global, collective and planned control of these forces implies the beginning, at least, of the transcendence of religious ideology and its ritualistic practices. Exchange value, the anarchy of the market, the ideological and psychological forms corresponding thereto  – which are the organic social products of the process of the production and circulation of capital – appear to be expressions of some eternal law of nature rather than the transient social creations of humanity itself. It appears that religion itself is just as eternal.

Accordingly, religious ideas – which reflect the prevalence and continuation of these social forms and relations which humanity has itself created but which stand, chimera-like, in alien opposition to humanity as if they were eternal laws of nature – only disappear…

when the practical relations of everyday life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellowmen and tonature.The life process of society, which is based on the process of material production, does not strip off its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men, and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan. This, however, demands for society a certain material ground work or set of conditions of existence which in their turn are the spontaneous product of a long and painful process of development. [9] 

Notes and References

[1] Engels.,  Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy Marx-Engels Selected Works. (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1973). p.618.

[2] Letter from Engels to F. Mehring, July 14, 1893. Marx-Engels Selected Works. (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1973) p.690.

[3] Lafargue, Paul., The Evolution of Property (Social and Philosophical Studies) (New Park, London, 1975) p.124.

[4] Trotsky., Problems of Everyday Life and Other Writings on Culture and Science.  (Monad Press, New York, 1973) p.309.

[5] Marx., The German Ideology. Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 5. (London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1976) p.93

[6] Engels., From the Preparatory Writings for Anti-Duhring. Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol 25. (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1987) pp.605-606.

[7] Engels., Anti-Duhring. Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol 25.(Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1987) pp.300-301

[8] Engels., Anti-Duhring. Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 25.(Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1987) pp.301-302

[9] Marx., Capital. (Volume 1) (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1974) p. 84


Shaun May

March 2016 (revised)


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