On the Origins of Religion [2]

On the Origins of Religion [2]

Religion – its practices, conceptual content, ritual, beliefs, etc – is humanity’s creation.  The identification of the human creation as the universal creator and arbiter of human affairs impels humanity to bow down and worship its own social creation. In this relationship, humanity identifies its own creation as its own creator and thus gives religious thought and practice its ‘inverted character’ (Marx). Accordingly, in the inverted world of religion, what is specifically created by humanity is identified by people as the actual creator of humanity. Religion, summa summarum – in its continually changing forms – is a product of the evolution of human society. Religion is man’s own creation. Thus, Marx writes that in 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 (Marx, Vol. 1, Capital, p.77). Man is governed by the products of his own brain. (Ibid, p. 582).

It is, of course, rationalistic to try to ‘argue away’ religion when the social conditions which form the ground for its existence have not, as yet, been negated. And when those conditions have been positively superseded there will, of course, be no grounds and no need to conduct this rationalistic interrogation of religion because religion itself will have vanished as a practice. The buildings and texts of religion will remain as part of the cultural heritage of humanity but our approach to them will be a purely human one without their theistic, sentimental reflection in thought and ritual.

Rationalism grapples with religion as if it is a set of ideas to be ‘argued out of existence’ and ‘proven to be wrong’ or ‘shown to be irrational’, etc. The same approach is found today with Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion. Religion, he states, is an irrational ‘delusion’. But it is a ‘delusion’ which is rooted in the ‘reality’ of the present society with all its problems and suffering.

What this rationalist tradition, therefore, does not do is to seek to locate the real social and historical basis for religion. It does not grasp religion as the creation of human history and therefore as a form of thinking and practice which can only be superseded by further historical development as the conditions of human life evolve. It does not see that religious feeling and sentiment exist because there are, currently, real grounds for its existence actually in operation socially. People still feel the need for religion. Thus, its approach is simply to confront religion rationalistically which is an ideological confrontation on both sides.

Marx’s criticism of religion took place in an epoch where it was driven from one refuge after another. Darwin’s discoveries delivered a massive blow to religion. 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. In order to pave the way for correct and real knowledge, it is necessary to remove fictitious knowledge. This is true, however, only when one considers the question as a whole. Historically, not only in individual cases, but also in the development of whole classes, real knowledge is bound up, in different forms and proportions, with religious prejudices. The struggle against a given religion or against religion in general, and against all forms of mythology and superstition, is usually successful only when the religious ideology conflicts with the needs of a given class in a new social environment.  In other words, when the accumulation of knowledge and the need for knowledge do not fit into the frame of the unreal truths of religion, then one blow with a critical knife sometimes suffices and the shell of religion drops off  (Trotsky, Problems of Everyday Life and Other Writings on Culture and Science. Monad Press, New York, 1973. p.309.) 

‘Real knowledge of the forces of nature ejects the gods or God from one position after another’ but ‘in the sphere of social phenomena reflection is still more difficult’ (Engels). Natural forces, not embracing within themselves the element of subjectivity, have a greater or more tangible degree of ‘otherness’ and therefore are more accessible to understanding than are subject-imbued social phenomena. The understanding of ‘the sphere of social phenomena’- which is the creation of subjectively-thinking and acting people – is ‘more difficult’.

As knowledge of the world deepens, it unearths its own inexactitudes and thus, in the process of its historic development, becomes more exact and more profound. In the totality of these developments, the human mind as a whole is always being pushed forward into new phases of development. Side by side with a growth in the real knowledge of nature proceeds the evolution of religious conceptions of natural forces. In the history of the human personality, it is not exclusively the transformation of social relations but also the progress of human knowledge of the world which plays a revolutionary role. The two, of course, are not separable historically.

In the earliest societies, humanity’s relationship with nature was permeated with superstition. For example, a plentiful harvest was thought to indicate divine favour whereas a dearth or drought was thought to express the wrath of the deities. Technique or behaviour that produced or coincided with favourable outcomes in terms of meeting the needs of a people were given divine and therefore 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 prehistoric past of a people – were themselves often mythologised thereby transferring the real prehistoric origins of a given technique or behaviour into the realms of myth, legend and religion. Such notions were then used to describe the origins (or ‘tell the stories’) of technique and behaviour, etc, e.g. the story of Prometheus in Greek myth stealing fire from the gods. People first learnt to capture and harness fire by taking it directly from its natural occurrence. In reality, ‘Prometheus’ ‘stole’ it from nature and not the gods. Only later did people learn how to make fire so that such techniques became a normal part of their daily lives for cooking, making and tempering tools, clearing scrub ground for agriculture, for renewed growth of vegetation for hunting and gathering (Australian Aborigines), managed burning of vegetation, etc.

The mythologies and legends of different peoples are the story books of their prehistory which reflect, in the form of fantastic images and tales, the struggles involved in the historic movement away from established property relations towards their alteration or new relations. In the course of the unfolding of this process, this involved the rejection of previous modes of human behaviour (and the embrace of new ones) that were a product of the mode of life determined by the older forms or characteristics of property 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. Some forms of behaviour were discarded and others continued as being socially consonant with the altered or new property and social relations.

Some forms of behaviour were considered to be favoured and others disfavoured by the deities or gods. This is echoed in the outlook of religions today which continue to consider specific forms of human behaviour or activity as being divinely proscribed. In fact, certain forms of behaviour no longer prevail or are rare or aberrant because the social basis of their legitimacy has vanished with the disappearance of earlier property relations. Such modes of behaviour could have been rejected because they were no longer in accord with the ‘wishes’ of the gods. Historically, they were no longer consonant with the newly-emerged or modified property relations. Accordingly, as social relations developed, certain modes of behaviour tended to vanish. The origin of taboos can be understood within this wider historical perspective and not simply conceptualised as the mere abandonment of ‘bad’ or ‘anti-social’ practices.

The word ‘taboo’ or tabu’ is a Polynesian word signifying a social ban or prohibition on a particular act, form of behaviour, contact with particular persons, things, places, etc. Taboo may also include the prohibition on the speaking of certain words, names, phrases, etc. Taboo customs are not exclusively Polynesian but have been found in all cultures at various stages in their history e.g. amongst the Jews, ancient Egyptians, Arabs, etc. In the Polynesian islands what is taboo is also thought of as sacred. The concept of ‘pollution’ in Anthropology describes any belief that some state, person, thing, relationship, etc, is unclean and must be restricted because it is socially contaminating, e.g. intercaste relationships in some societies, menstruation in some tribal societies, etc. The transgression of taboos carries a punishment which may take the form of ostracism, exile, persecution, etc, or even death.

For example, specific forms of behaviour and practices which, as a result of historical experience and the lessons of these experiences, were thought or known to threaten the life or general well-being of a community were prohibited.  These prohibitions became enshrined in the religious ideology of a community so that the transgression of such prohibitions warranted punishment. Exclusion from a community in prehistoric times often meant death for individuals since the individual could not survive independently of the life process of the community.  Those practices and forms of behaviour that were known to be detrimental to the well-being of the community (through an awareness of the causal relation between the practice and the results of it) or were believed to be harmful (often as a result of the chance coincidence of a practice with some other detrimental phenomenon, usually natural) were outlawed and a strict social control of the tribe over their manifestation was exercised. The historical human experience (and the lessons drawn from these experiences) of a correlation (either causal or accidental) between phenomena (sometimes mediated, at least partially or accidentally, by human action) is at the core of the incorporation of prohibitive notions into an ideology. The fact that a practice becomes prohibited demonstrates the social importance that is attributed to the sphere within which the practice has traditionally taken place; for example, in production, sexual relations and religion. The social prohibition of certain practices becomes an integral part of the ideology of a community. In early societies, these prohibitions take on a religious significance. This serves to reinforce the prohibition so that its transgression is, at the same time, a profanity against the deities or gods which are believed to be controlling human affairs. Here, the subjective creations of the human mind are believed to be real entities existing independently of humanity and determining its ‘fate’. The severity of a punishment inflicted for the transgression of a prohibition therefore reflects, in the outlook (ideology) of a people, the social importance (perceived or actual) of the prohibition in the welfare of its community.

The intervention of the gods was ‘seen’ everywhere in nature and social life.  Plagues and famine necessitated supplication. They became understood as manifestations of divine displeasure visited upon a people for its own ‘misdeeds’.  Behaviour and practices which were considered to risk displeasing the deities became prohibited. 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. Religious practices 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 (priesthoods, shamans, etc). The ‘success’, ‘failure’ or outcome of the ‘communication’ between the two worlds became ‘expressed’ in and through the natural and social phenomena which were an intrinsic part of the daily life of a people. Poor harvests, no rains, droughts, famine, disease, etc, were believed to be manifestations of the displeasure or anger (both human attributes) of the deities. Contrarily, good harvests, plenty, good health, etc, were considered to be manifestations of the opposite. The correlation of religious practices with the occurrence of such phenomena tended to encourage the perpetuation of certain practices whilst prohibiting, or reinforcing the prohibition of, others.

Prohibition therefore becomes integrated into the ideology of a people which could be used as a means of regulating and controlling the collective and individual behaviour of human beings. Such forms of regulation were also a necessary feature of prehistoric communities. Behaviour that was thought to be detrimental to the well-being of a community was prohibited in opposition to customary forms of behaviour which had become established as being favourable. Or customary forms were eclipsed by adopting or adapting forms of behaviour which were considered to be more favourable. Favoured forms of behaviour were represented in stories, fables, myths, etc, within the oral tradition of a people. The lessons of these mythical and legendary stories were integrated into, and became an established part of, the general social morality of a community. Despised and disfavoured forms of behaviour were demonised and subject to taboo.

The life of the early human communities was characterised by an ideological narrowness reflecting a primitive level of technique and a rudimentary knowledge of nature. Humanity’s relation to nature formed the basis upon which religious notions originated and thenceforth developed historically. The relationship of humanity to the essentially unknown and uncontrolled forces of nature – upon which humanity through the labour process was dependent for its means of life – constituted the ground upon which religion originated. In their prehistory, humans are the marionettes of their religious notions because the totality of their existence is determined and dominated by the forces of nature. The development of a real knowledge of nature and the development of techniques to control it and harness its forces to serve human needs undermines all religious notions by transforming them into higher, more abstract forms such as we find in monotheistic doctrines. The general level of knowledge of nature influences the conceptual content of religious conceptions of nature. For example, Protestantism could not have emerged without the scientific revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was not simply social changes per se that necessitated the Reformation. Changes in consciousness were also pre-conditional and necessary. Here knowledge is not conceived in the narrow conceptual sense but is understood to involve the totality of social praxis.

Monotheism is the final, most abstract stage of religion. And even the most abstract forms of Buddhism such as Zen are the philosophical articulation of this monotheism in the the form of the the eternity of the ‘Void’ or ‘Nothingness’. The Void is the fundamental, metaphysical principle of Buddhism. Historically, there is no, and there cannot be, religion beyond monotheism. In so far as polytheisms, animisms and nature-worship persists, these are merely reconstitutions of and returns to earlier forms. But they are not beyond monotheism as the highest point of abstraction in religion. In so far as philosophical idealism has its deepest conceptual roots in religion, we may admit it into the pantheon of its descendants.

To the nomadic troop of hunter-gatherers – the first, spontaneously-emerged social formations – natural forces are something alien, mysterious, superior. Religion comes into being as an attempt to explain these forces, that is, 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 thus, initially, cannot render a real, comprehensive scientific knowledge of these forces. However, despite this, even religious notions contain the primitive, 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 not only have different ’causes’ but that also a real causal connection exists between them. Therefore, even the religious notion at its early stages may contain an undeveloped, embryonic rational element within itself which can only be fully developed when technique has arrived at a more advanced stage of development, that is, where human society has reached a point in its development where the conditions are present for such ‘seeds’ of knowledge to ‘germinate’.

Religious notions of natural forces as manifestations of the actions of gods, spirits, demons, deities, etc, imbues nature with supernatural meaning and significance for people. The sacrifices, supplications, offerings and prayers of religious practice express humanity’s servile dependence on and domination by nature in one form or another and, of course, what Trotsky refers to as the continuation of ‘the incoherence of social relations’.

Engels states that the ‘urge to personify that created gods everywhere’ was a universal urge found among all peoples and a necessary phase in their development. It was an attempt to ‘assimilate’ the ‘alien, mysterious, superior’ forces of nature and demonstrated ‘the universality of religion’. The Hindu, Greek and Roman pantheon typify this personification. This ‘urge’ was an attempt to feel ‘at home’ in nature through the personification of its forces. This personification of nature reflects the need to be and feel ‘at home’, ‘at one’, in and with nature and not to be estranged from it.

Feuerbach demonstrated, in his Essence of Christianity (1841), that in religion humanity – at any given stage or period of its development – has always ‘projected’ itself into its doctrinal forms. Human characteristics, desires, moral paradigms, etc, become attributed to the ‘transcendental’ which is identified as ‘creator’ rather than ‘human creation’. In the process of doing this it has, thereby, created a ‘mirror image’ of itself – direct, inverted, idealised or otherwise in the deities of all religions, including the monotheistic forms. The contrast between the Christian and Islamic notions of heaven or paradise clearly illustrates this. Christianity originated as a movement of the enslaved and plebeian oppressed in the Roman Empire with notions of an afterlife free of oppression, suffering, fear and pain. Islam was an innovation of Arab tribesmen living in arid lands on a limited diet. At the time of Muhammed, the date palm and the camel were the staple sources. It is no accident that the Islamic paradise is hedonistic, central to which is wine, food and sexual pleasure. The inverse of the paucity of the social reality in which it originated as a doctrine. Whereas the Christian heaven is one where the dead in the afterlife are free of the suffering, fear and pain which they experienced in life at the time of the Roman Empire.

In the pantheon of gods of polytheisms and in monotheisms, we find the gods or God characterised by human attributes. This shows, implicitly, that such attributes, whatever form they may take, are, taken in their totality, the product of human society at a definite stage in its historical development. The persistence of religion corresponds to the continuation of social relations which, in their immanent nature and movement, necessarily engender religion itself. That human beings have not progressed beyond those historical stages which form the social basis for the origination and development of religion. In other words, to stages which render all religion unnecessary so that people can live a full, multifaceted and meaningful human life. Man continues to be ‘governed by the products of his own brain’ (Marx, Capital, Vol 1).

The personifications in religion constituted a ‘fictitious knowledge’ of nature that gave people (ignorant of the real causes and character of its forces) an ‘explanation’ for their occurrence. In this regard, they also fulfilled an important social psychological function. Their formation in consciousness reflected the struggle of people to try to understand, and come to terms with, those laws which govern nature’s movements and development : to understand the ‘why?’ in the life of nature and humanity.

Shaun May

September  2018