Henry Gibson reviewed an account of the roots of religion in Issue 54 (December 2013).
John Pickard, Behind the Myths: The Foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (AuthorHouse)
This book looks at the genesis of the world’s major religions, and explicitly does so from a non-religious standpoint. They are “rooted in material social conditions”, the author insists: “the origin of these religions can only lie in the economic, social and political circumstances of the time in which they were born”. He undertakes an all but forensic analysis of their backgrounds, referencing a bewildering range of religious and historical texts.
Unsurprisingly, the received wisdoms don’t stand up too well to all this. The Bible, for instance (to take the one best known in this part of the world), is not a book handed down by God but a collection of more or less distorted versions of texts written by different people considerably later than the events they purport to describe. The central figure of Jesus is unlikely to have been an actual individual, but at most an amalgamation of legends about the various preachers of salvation active at the time. One book of the Bible flatly contradicts another, and sometimes a book contradicts itself, because the Bible we have is a heavily rewritten version of the tales and beliefs it started out from. The revealed truth is revealed to be largely fiction.
Religions grew as an aspect of social and economic change. As slaves revolted against rulers, and empires gave way to rivals, religion often provided the battledress in which conflicts were fought out. When the will of a god and the actions of his disciples represented “the only political language of the day”, political arguments often took the form of claiming divine support for your own side and calling divine wrath down upon your opponents. When one social system pushed aside an old one, religious belief could act, in the words of a historian quoted here, “as a symbolic phrasing of the new social relations”.
The other-worldliness of religious teaching lends it a flexibility which fits it well to such a role. It is often “enigmatic and open to a variety of interpretations”, any of which can serve different interests in various times and places. So Jesus says that, when someone smacks you on the cheek, you should offer the other one. To a conservative, this is a counsel of quietly submitting to oppression, but a radical can interpret it as advising that you should continue to stand up to injustice whatever the consequences. The enigma can even suit the same people in different circumstances. Jesus saying that his kingdom is not of this world probably meant originally that freedom for the slaves could only be realised by the overthrow of the Roman empire, but in times of defeat and despair it could offer the consolation that true freedom lay on the other side of death.
But of course, such a fate has been visited upon other philosophies too, even that which Pickard draws upon. When we read that “the priestly authors overlaid the entire traditional narrative and oral history with their own interpretation”, it is difficult not to think of the way Marx’s essential thought has been impoverished by explanations and expositions, consciously designed or lazily accepted, which rob it of its power. “Whereas the early Church had demonstrated a wide range of different beliefs—to a degree that would be inconceivable in any branch of the Christian Church today—the growing bureaucracy sought to consolidate its position through theological uniformity”: an ironic foretelling of what Marx has been subjected to. There are complex social reasons for this, but the philosophical root lies in replacing a critical and enquiring scepticism with a blind faith based on obedience to authority.
Happily, John Pickard doesn’t write as such a Marxist true believer. All the same, there are times when his Marxism is somewhat limited and limiting. He refutes a claim that monotheism arose from a growth in people’s self-awareness by saying: “there is no evidence for any change in the basic psychological capacities of human beings in the last few thousand years”. But such evidence exists in abundance, of course, and it is strange for a Marxist to imagine that immense change can taken place in society while human psychology remains still the same old story. Individuality is something which has developed in society throughout history, and would develop further still in a world free from class oppression. A similar downplaying of the role of human thought is evident in the fact that, amidst all the description of religion reacting to social relations, we get no real discussion here of religion’s role in reinforcing and promoting social relations in turn—surely a necessary aspect of a rounded Marxist explanation.
The book gives short shrift to the holy books, showing them to be historical products, shaped by the developments that gave rise to religious belief. This all proves pretty conclusively that they are not at all factual narratives of things that actually happened. However, the author seems to conclude that consequently, they have no historical value. But they should be treated as folklore, as records of commonly-held beliefs, retold and reshaped by subsequent generations. Properly evaluated, such sources are important for the historian, even when dealing with comparatively recent history, and should be invaluable when going back millennia. To say that “there is no historical evidence, other than the biblical story” for someone or something discounts the reality that such stories constitute historical evidence in themselves, even if only circumstantial evidence on the level of tradition.
Pickard writes that “a person’s religion, in ninety-nine per cent of cases, is a matter of the national, ethnic, cultural and family identity into which they were born”. This may be true in the formal sense of which box gets ticked on the census form, but it misses a lot of the deeper reality. Plenty of people reading this will have been born into a religion but feel far less attachment to it that their parents did, and will hardly recognise the attitude of their grandparents. Their “national, ethnic, cultural and family identity” may not have changed much, but their religion certainly has. A survey by the Association of Catholic Priests last year showed that most Catholics in Ireland don’t go to mass every week, think women and married men should be priests, don’t see homosexuality as a sin—in short, dissent from fundamental defining characteristics of Catholicism. There are reasons for this shift, arising from the development of Irish society, but it is a shift which does reflect people making up their own minds about religion in one way or another, rather than just going along with what they were baptised into. Seeing religion as primarily an accident of birth collapses the development of religion into general historical development, which may be more convenient for the historian, but fails to confront important qualitative changes in religious belief.
While certainly not pulling punches, the book does its best not to gratuitously offend religious believers. The Vatican is characterised as “a reactionary, self-perpetuating political machine”, but it is emphasised that no other religion has such a crowning worldwide institution, and that the same does not go for the beliefs and actions of rank-and-file Catholics around the world. The litany of official Catholic reaction is long, but the statement that “Throughout its history, the Church has been on the extreme right of the political spectrum, opposed to every single measure, in whatever country, that extended the right to vote, or extended women’s or trade union rights” is plain inaccurate. In Ireland, hell is not hot enough nor eternity long enough to punish the bishops for all they’ve done on us—but it is a matter of fact that they didn’t oppose the referendum lowering the voting age in 1972, the Juries Act 1976 providing for women jurors on an equal basis, or the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977 making it illegal to sack people for trade union activity. A less sweeping statement, better thought through, would have made the point more effectively.
The author observes that “many of the key political issues of war, revolution and social upheaval are brought into sharp focus by what appear, on the surface, to be issues of religious faith”. But only on the surface: the rise of political Islam, he points out, is less to do with the spiritual power of the Koran than with the corporal power of imperialism in the Middle East and racism in Europe. Therefore, he criticises atheists who treat religion as “an intellectual debate in which the followers of religion are charged with harbouring inferior and inconsistent ideas”. (Richard Dawkins springs to mind, with his patronising insistence that people just drop all this silly religious nonsense of theirs.) The truth is that “having atheists debate and argue with people of faith will not lead many of the latter to change their views”.
But if all this is the case, why has he written 450 pages of very dense, often heavy-going, argument on quite esoteric matters around the historical origins of religions and the inaccuracies of their holy texts? Believers will immediately react to factual evidence by affirming that they rely on faith, on phenomena which pass human understanding and mundane fact. The preface advises such people to “put the book down and read no further” because it is “aimed at underpinning the beliefs of those atheists, agnostics and unbelievers who are opposed to… established religions”.
This smacks a little of The League of Gentlemen’s grotesque shopkeeper proclaiming that “There’s nothing for you here!” Can a Marxist argument on religion not be made in a way which also addresses those who have some kind of religious faith? The dividing line between believers and unbelievers is never as clear-cut as all that, and fuzzy edges remain to be probed everywhere. In fact, if indeed “Workers of all faiths and nationalities will walk side by side” against the ruling class, religion could well come up for discussion somewhere along the way. On the other hand, if atheists need their position strengthened, there must be easier and more effective ways than a line-by-line refutation of the ancient world’s religious echoes.
Marx and Engels get quoted throughout, including the bit about religion being “the opium of the people”, which is thankfully quoted at length rather than as a phrase out of context. But while both men had to struggle with religion in their youth, there is a reason why the subject featured less and less in their work as they moved on. As Engels once said of the average socialist, “atheism has already outlived its usefulness for them… they are simply through with God”. A non-existent god shouldn’t detain us so much.
Pickard rightly states that religion is unlikely to succumb to academic debate or to repression, and that a society without exploitation is needed to create conditions where people will exert a greater control over their lives and free themselves of a need for religious explanations and consolations. In the meantime, “their religious affiliation will not prevent them moving on class lines to challenge the old order”. So where does a book like this come in? Those interested in the subject will find a painstaking account of how major religions arose amidst the social struggles of the time, but a materialist understanding of the role of religion today would derive more from confronting its modern realities than from combing through its primeval genesis. Even if he never existed, the man had a point when he said that we should let the dead bury their dead.