Why religions?

There’s a church in Yorkshire’s Bronte country that calls itself FERN, an acronym which stands for “free from all earthly and religious notions”. It’s a worthy objective, but one from which they fall short, because they go on to prescribe their own set of religious notions:

“We believe the Bible to be the Word of God. We believe God meant the Bible to be read and accepted just as He wrote it, without it being ‘spiritualised’ or explained away, and that the Bible is the only infallible and authoritative Word of God.

“There is one God, the Creator, eternally existing in three persons, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.”

‘Twas ever thus. I have no quarrel with either of these propositions, but they are not free of religious notions; they are religious notions.

As soon as we seek to free ourselves of the notions enshrined in our various belief systems, that very freedom tends to become another belief system, another religion. Christianity and Marxism are prime examples of this phenomenon, and it would be tempting to think that this must be something in-built within the human psyche, were it not for the evidence that religion came comparatively late into our ways of thinking.

This is acknowledged in the Bible, which says (Genesis 4:26) “Then men began to call upon the name of the Lord”, “then” being at the time of the birth of Noah’s grandson, Enosh.

According to the Biblical chronology accepted by most “Young Earth” Creationists – a chronology which is founded on a belief system which, in Christian terms, is a modern heresy rather than being a divinely-inspired understanding of the Biblical record as is claimed – this would have been about three to four thousand years before the birth of Christ, but archaeological evidence of a catastrophic flood in the region suggests might have been some six thousand years earlier.

However, either estimate places it a long time after the emergence of homo sapiens in Africa 160 thousand years ago; or, come to that, the discovery of fire (500,000 BC).

As Régis Debray has pointed out, the concept of God came into our collective consciousness comparatively late in the history of human development:

“We His children are ancient in relation to our Creator . . . He is, at best, six thousand years old; Homo sapiens is between fifty and a hundred thousand years old.”

(God: an itinerary, Verso, 2004, p. 16)

In his Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Viking, 2006, p.140) Daniel Dennett posits something he calls folk religion,

“…the sorts of religion that have no written creeds, no theologians, no hierarchies of officials. Before any of the great organized religions existed, there were folk religions, and these provided the cultural environment from which organized religions could emerge.”

But this is to indulge in the sort of terminological inexactitude that would never be admitted in any of these writers’ chosen fields, whether it be Richard Dawkins’ biology or Sam Harris’s neuroscience. Presumably, by “folk religion”, Dennett is referring to magic, which Keith Thomas has called (in the significantly titled Religion and the Decline of Magic) “the employment of ineffective techniques to allay anxiety when effective ones are not available”.

But magic is not religion, which it pre-dates, and nor is belief in God. Adam and Eve knew God, because he walked with them in the Garden of Eden, but they only became in awe of him after they had eaten of the forbidden fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil:

“And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.”

(Genesis 3:8)

Thus was religion born out of fear and shame – though it was only several thousand years later, as we have seen, that men began to “call upon the name of the Lord”.

How did this come about? Since, as late as the psalms of David (who ruled over the Kingdom of Israel c. 1003–970), it was still being declared that “ye are gods” (Psalm 82:1) – a text to which Jesus referred a thousand years later when he was charged with blasphemy (John 10: 25-30) – clearly something traumatic happened in the early history of humanity to alienate proto-humans from their essential nature. Religion was the consequence of this trauma, not its cause, so we cannot merely seek to free ourselves from its tyranny by declaring war on all religion, because to be rigidly anti-religious is merely to raise up a new idol to worship, a new religious banner, with “against religion” inscribed upon it.

We cannot find the freedom we seek in our own hearts and minds by our own efforts: “Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?” (Matthew 6: 27). As Marx wrote, “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852)

One of the last of the Old Testament prophets taught that there would come a “new testament” (literally, a new promise or bequest) when religious observances would no longer be necessary:

“And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord.”

(Jeremiah 31: 34)

So religious observance is something associated with a particular phase in human history, something imported into Jewish culture from outside, and it is hateful to God:

“I hate, I despise your feast days.”

(Amos 5:21)

“Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting.”

(Isaiah 1: 13)

“. . . thou desirest not sacrifice; . . . thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart. . .”

(Psalm 51: 16-17).

These rituals are not hated in themselves, but because they are offered up by those who do not

“judge the cause of the poor and needy”.

(Jeremiah 22:16):

The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord: but the prayer of the upright is his delight.

(Proverbs 15: 8)

What was the nature of the trauma that created religion? There is a Biblical clue in the story of Cain, the agriculturalist, and Abel, the keeper of sheep:

Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering: But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell. . . And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.

(Genesis 4: 3-5, 8)

The archeological record indicates that agriculture, which set Cain and Abel at each other’s throats, was a Neolithic phenomenon. According to Margaret Ehrenburg:

“The chief characteristic of the Neolithic was the establishment of agriculture in south‑west Asia and south‑east Europe, perhaps around the seventh millennium BC or earlier. The innovation progressively spread across Europe, until it became established in Britain by the fourth millennium BC. Numerous other inventions and adaptations in lifestyle seem to have occurred more or less at the same time. These include the change from a nomadic to a sedentary settlement pattern, the invention of pottery and the use of polished stone tools. It is likely that important social changes followed from these developments.”

(Women in Prehistory, by Margaret Ehrenburg, British Museum Press, 1995, p. 77)

According to Weston Le Barre, in the earliest times shamanic rituals (ie pre-religious magic) were practised “all the way from the mouth of the Orinoco in Venezuela to the Rio Plata in Argentina . . . which is to say everywhere in South America, except in the high agricultural societies of Colombia and Andean America” where the shamanic magician had become a “divinized monarch”. (The Ghost Dance – the origins of religion (George Allen & Unwin, 1972, p. 198)

Albert Hourani, emeritus fellow at St Anthony’s College and honorary fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford, divided the history of “the world of settled agriculture, cities and high culture” into two main stages:

“The first began with the emergence, at various points in the Afro-Eurasian area, of ‘citified agrarianate societies’: societies in which cities dominated the countryside and were able to order their relations with it in such a way as to gain control of the agrarian surplus and use it in their own interests. Whether the surplus came in the form of taxes or rent was a secondary matter; the concept of ‘land-ownership’ is of limited importance in dealing with societies of this kind. . .

“In the cities which dominated such societies, a special kind of urban life grew up. The city supplemented the wealth derived from agrarian manual production by manufacturing goods and exchanging them over a wide area. The wealth derived from trade and dependent agriculture made possible the emergence of governments of a kind impossible in the countryside: governments which maintained an over-riding military power and organised bureaucracy, with systems of law and legal or religious hierarchies to interpret and administer them.”

(Islam in European Thought, pp. 80-81)

This analysis is borne out by the Biblical record, which is essentially of battles for the control of cities such as Jericho.

Of course, as with any revolution in human behaviour, the rise of religion (or the succession of a new religion on the foundations of a previous belief system) did not destroy the magical element in social relationships – which is why Christmas is celebrated on December 25, date of the pre-Christian Mithraic festival Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Birth of the Unconquered Sun) and the Christian Easter not only derives its name from the pre-Christian Goddess, Ēostre or Ostara, but like the Muslim Ramadhan, moves around the calendar in tune with the phases of the moon.

Writers like Euripides and Livy were hostile to the revival of Dionysian rituals in Thebes or Rome at times of social unrest but the survival of these phenomena showed that there was a folk memory – or, in Jungian terms, an archetype – in Greek and Roman society, though these survivals often fitted themselves into the contemporary religious formats.

But while there is no hard-and-fast borderline between magic and religion, the two are in reality quite distinct; an expression like “pagan religion” is an oxymoron, since the folk described by the Romans as “pagani” did not practise an alternative religion as such (indeed, they probably sacrificed to the same urban gods as the people in the cities, just as the wise women burnt at the stake in the medieval witch-hunts frequently protested their Christian faith as they went to the flames).

Despite the supernatural underpinnings of pagan magic, it was and is essentially materialist, a worldview of the way the world works, based on traditions laid down through millennia of human experience. Religion, on the other hand, is causative, elevating a hypothetical explanation of the ways of the world into eternal truths, which must be defended at all costs, even when the supportive data turns out to be mistaken, or the hypothesis unsupported by later dater.

The magician knows that seeds must be planted at certain times and seasons if they are to bear the required fruit, and no amount of prayer, chanting, or whatever, will cause apples to grow on an orange tree, as the old song has it. But the geneticist nonsense promulgated by Lysenko in the USSR with all the force of the Soviet state behind him maintained that such miracles were possible, and when Galileo’s observations showed that the earth did in fact revolve around the sun, he was forced by the Inquisition to recant.

The Inquisitors believed in God, and Lysenko claimed to be an atheist, but their behaviour was essentially religious, in that in each of their cases an insupportable hypothesis was regarded as holy writ, despite any the evidence to the contrary.

This does not mean that we must not hypothesize, for fear of getting it wrong. Human progress is based more on getting it wrong than on getting it right. We can learn from our mistakes, but getting it right merely proves to our own satisfaction how clever we are. And an incorrect hypothesis does not necessarily invalidate the data deried from it, as evidenced by the fallacious belief that all substances contained an element called phlogiston, which was given off during burning.

Though there turns out to have been no such substance as phlogiston, Engels pointed out:

“By the phlogistic theory, chemistry for the first time emancipated itself from alchemy.”

(Dialectics of Nature)

Something similar might be said of religion. Judaism’s Ten Commandments (which may have been borrowed from the Babylonian code of Hammurabi) introduced the concept of causality into human thinking, the foundation of all modern science: if you do THIS then THAT outcome will result. But the second, third and fourth Commandments legislate against worshipping our concepts:

Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:

Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them:

(Exodus 20: 3-5)

How does a reasonable hypothesis degenerate into a religious dogma? It is, perhaps, a demonstration of entropy, the measure of how evenly energy is distributed in a system, and an explanation of why all closed systems degenerate. It is why a boiled kettle cools down, why a cold kettle never boils, unless an outside force is exerted upon it.

The concept of entropy is based on Clausius’ Second Law of Thermodynamics (“It is impossible for a self-acting machine, unaided by any external agency, to convey heat from one body to another at a higher temperature”), which Engels felt could not be true, since it suggests that the Universe requires a creator to set it going, thus: “Let there be light” (Genesis 1: 3)

Chaos theory turns out to be the disproof Engels was seeking, but like Newtonian physics in the universe of Einsteinian relativity, entropy rules most of the time. And it rules, not only in the world of pots and kettles, and the Big Bang of Creation; it also governs human social activity, which is why Trotsky was right (but for the wrong reasons) in calling for permanent revolution.

Any social structure needs constantly to reinvent itself if it is not to degenerate into its opposite, which is why Judaism’s original ten commandments (of which Jesus said there were two main ones, to love God and to love your neighbour, which he said were like each other, reducing the number to one), had become 613 precepts in the law by his time – 248 commandments and 365 prohibitions, one for each day of the year. No doubt the number continues to increase exponentially, day by day.

The followers of Jesus assumed he had come to prescribe a new set of rules, a new “way”, but he confounded them by saying that in him was the fulfilment the Law, that he was the Way. In defiance of this clear commandment, most of those who call themselves Christians are now setting up new rules: against homosexuals, against women priests and bishops, against married priests. Negativity rules, and this rule dictates dogma.

Similarly, the Soviet bureaucracy turned the Marxist-Leninist method into its opposite: a set of secular religious precepts, conforming to Lenin’s definition of clericalism – “rectilinearity and one-sidedness, stiffness and petrification, subjectivism and subjective blindness”. This, said Lenin, was the very reverse of the materialism supposedly central to the philosophy of a Marxist party. He was applying the description to the Orthodox Church of Tsarist times, but how applicable it is to the degenerate Party of later years!

A religious hypothesis is like a Euclidian theorem, a proposition which first establishes what is given, a leap of faith, upon which is predicated all that follows. The first of Euclid’s five “common notions” holds that

“Things that are equal to the same thing are also equal to one another.”

No proof of this is offered, nor does it need to be.

Eric Temple Bell, President of the Mathematical Association of America (also a poet, who wrote science fiction under the pseudonym of John Taine) has said:

“Euclid taught me that without assumptions there is no proof. Therefore, in any argument, examine the assumptions.”

Let us do so.

The American Declaration of Independence begins with an opening axiom:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Like Euclid’s first common notion, these are not only declared to be self-evident, but the supposed Creator is not defined as such, since his existence was also held to be as self-evident as the rights endowed by him. (And the term “men” is today held to include “women”, something the original signatories would not necessarily have believed in 1776.) Circumstances alter cases, as Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote in a dialect song of that title in 1913 (though the phrase actually dates back to 1678).

It is idle to complain that the believer’s theorem begins “Since there is a God”, or the atheist’s leap of faith to the contrary – “Since there is no God” – unless we realise that neither proposition is what is to be demonstrated.

Each proposition is as religious as the other. The bases for these assumptions are the subject of the rest of this document.


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