Three articles appear below:

1    Christian Origins: the Iranian Contribution 121
2    Christian Origins in Iran? 122
3    Debating with a Fundamentalist: Is It Worth the Effort? 123

Christian Origins: The Iranian Contribution

Bob Potter

(Investigator 121, 2008 July)

During the recent Easter weekend (2008), BBC 'TV news' reports (irritatingly) combined shots of our 'Royals' at Church with footage of the American president, extolling the 'valiant efforts' of his troops conducting his illegal and shameful attack on Iraq (costing at least 100,000 innocent lives 'cut short', untold suffering and despair from the destruction of homes, hospitals and cities). The president, George W Bush, ended with his routine threats against the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Perhaps it is not co-incidental both George Bush and his one-time British lapdog, Tony Blair, are 'born again' Christians and that Britain's latest 'self-proclaimed' ally, president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy combines a 'playboy' past with a publicized commitment to the Catholic church, and arrived in London to promise a thousand French troops to help 'liberate' Afghanistan.     

What happened in the Middle East three thousand years ago may be thought to have little relevance to what is happening there today. But the thought has occurred to me that probably most Christians are totally ignorant of the fact that most of the distinguishing doctrines of the early Christian Church originated not in Israel but in ancient Persia – or, more specifically, in the theology of Zoroaster.(1)
Early Eschatologies

Perhaps a distinction between ape and man is that the latter, so far as we know, has always held some sort of eschatological belief – a hope, even a conviction, that the world as we know it must one day be transcended and that life, social and/or individual, will continue in some form beyond the grave.

Archaeological evidence from the Upper Palaeolithic Age (30,000 – 10,000 BC) suggests that even then it was not only believed that life continued after death, but that the future life would be essentially the same as this one; the dead were interred with their utensils and weapons.  Even the distant relation of 'homo sapiens', Neanderthal Man, buried his dead, so we can say with reasonable certainty that a measure of eschatological belief has been around for at least 70,000 years.

Implicit in any belief of 'life after death' is dissatisfaction with the thought that this life might be 'all there is'.  One might anticipate that the more unsatisfactory this life appears, the more important the next one will be and the more fervently it will be believed in. Feuerbach, to whom Marx and Engels were so indebted, had something like this in mind when he wrote:
"The more empty life is, the fuller, the more concrete is God. The impoverishing of the real world and the enriching of God is one act." (2)
It follows from this that we would expect to find divisions of belief within the societies of our hominid ancestors – no doubt those who 'led' the 'primal hordes' had less need of a belief in immortality than those who occupied the lower status within the primitive social structure; unfortunately, as Marx realized so well (3), almost always our knowledge of the earliest human societies is based on records left by those who held the power.

Perhaps the oldest source of comprehensive eschatological doctrine is Iranian Zoroastrianism. Zoroaster, a reforming priest and prophet, probably lived in the Bronze Age, about 1500 BC; so far as we know, his was the first comprehensive doctrine of one creator, a cosmic struggle engulfing a dualistic creation and the need for a moral struggle against evil.

Our knowledge of his teachings is based on the seventeen Gathas (songs or odes) allegedly composed by him; in his essential contribution [set out in the Book of Primal Creation (4)] is the positing of two primal principles, Ahura Mazda, good and pure, and Angra Mainyu, wholly malignant and ignorant, both 'uncreated' and perpetually at war with one another for the possession of human souls. Ahura Mazda had created two worlds, one spiritual, one material; both 'perfect' and 'pure'. Human beings, originally spiritual had entered the second, material world as this was the only way in which the power of evil (Angra Mainyu) might be annihilated.   

 Zoroaster taught complete happiness required a re-union of 'soul' and 'body'; his future 'kingdom' being very much of this earth. At death, the link between 'soul' and 'body' is severed, Evil takes over and destroys the body. For three days the human soul hovers anxiously over the body; on the fourth day it is 'judged' by a Tribunal (presided over by Mithra), where the soul is 'weighed'. If the finding is a preponderance of good deeds, the soul is escorted to 'Heaven', otherwise to 'Hell' or 'Purgatory'. However, this 'judgement' of the soul at death is but a prelude to a general resurrection and 'Final Judgement', which will take place at the end of time when all bodies will be resurrected and reunited with their souls.   

These teachings appealed to the poor and unprivileged for Zoroaster broke with the older traditions of the aristocrats and priests who argued, essentially, that the present status quo remained unchanged in the future paradise. Instead, this teaching was that provided the humble seek after 'righteousness', they could hope for salvation, while the rich and privileged were threatened with Hell and extinction if they acted unjustly.   So the post-mortem torments of the damned were not regarded as eternal – rather an expiation preparatory to the 'Final Judgement'; throughout the Gathas is a sense of urgency – now is the time to repent for the end of things is close at hand.

Readers will have recognized much of the previous paragraphs as precursing many of the fundamentalist Christian beliefs. The important point I would make, at this stage, is that these ideas are strongly opposed to the doctrines of Judaism prior to the Babylonian captivity.

Evolution of Jewish beliefs.

Pre-Mosaic Jahwism had no individual eschatology; it was concerned only with family and nation. Departed 'individuals' were considered only in terms of a form of 'ancestor worship'; appeasement sacrifices were offered to the dead (5) but the deceased were never described in terms of a continued individual life. The living and the dead continued to form one family (Rachel in her grave weeps for her children) (6); hence it was logical for the consequences of sins and virtues to be inherited by future generations. (7) The grave belonged to the family [hence the frequent references to newly deceased being 'gathered to his fathers' (8)] and refusal of burial in the family tomb (the denial of a 'temple' for the receipt of sacrifices) was regarded as a calamity. (9) Originally, Sheol was the post-mortem abode of 'the collective of families' – 'the nation'; it was not seen as coming under Jahweh's jurisdiction until the 4th Century BC. (10); inhabitants of Sheol had a 'shade-like' existence. (15)

The fall of Jerusalem at the beginning of the 6th Century and the consequent forced emigration of some 10,000 officers, fighting men, craftsmen and artisans into Babylonian captivity are well-known events highlighted in Jewish (and Christian) scriptures; the legend of Belshazzar's feast, immortalized by Rembrandt's famous painting, and the overwhelming of the city and massacre of its rulers by the Persian invaders under Cyrus the Great in a single night in 539 BC, ended the seventy years of Jewish captivity. Babylonian religion, with its galaxy of Gods, had nothing to offer the former captives — monotheism was unknown in Babylon.

Cyrus and the Persian court were followers of Zoroaster. (11) They were understandably welcomed as liberators by the Jews. For varying lengths of time many were happy to live under Persian protection, even after the welcome decree of Cyrus permitting the group, now comprising 42,360 males, together with many slaves and 'professionals', to return to Jerusalem as and when they so desired. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Jews during this period looked favourably upon the doctrines of their Iranian saviours — a change that is reflected in the writings of the second Isaiah and Ezekiel.

A new assessment of the 'life after death' doctrine was being forged. The domain of Sheol was extended to include all humanity, although it was assumed the Gentile oppressors would 'suffer more' in that realm. The old argument of the earlier prophets, that the peoples' misfortunes were the punishment of Jahweh, no longer held water. If God was to remain 'just' there had to be a means of redressing the nation's tribulations, and this could only come about by some sort of post-mortem procedure.

The prophets now sought a renovated world that would recapture the blessedness of the original Eden. They described the future for Israel's 'righteous remnant' as being on earth and where 'the lion lay down with the lamb, deserts became fertile, an abundance of food, war and want were abolished and perfected man lived in happiness and contentment'. (12) Belief in an all-powerful and all-loving God increasingly demanded that the righteous dead be allowed to participate in the future joy:

"Thy dead shall live, their bodies shall rise.
O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy!" (13)
wrote the later Isaiah (a text that contrasts so strongly with the pre-exile scriptures!).

The exile experience helped produce another profound modification of Hebrew theology:   

The earlier view had been that 'soul' represented the unity of body and spirit:
"Dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return". (14)

In one sense, Jahwist thinkers had refused to follow this idea completely; somehow or other the 'shade' persisted and could, like that of Samuel, be contacted. (15) Association with Iranian thought had introduced a new dualistic dimension. As the body obviously rotted away at death, belief in a separate surviving spirit and/or soul became essential. Man rather than being soul was conceived rather as consisting of body and soul. Parallel with this, the non-moral Sheol gave way to ideas more consistent with hopes for a future life based on individual behaviour. Jeremiah was the first Hebrew prophet to conceive religion as the individual's communication with God:
"… every one shall die for his own sin."(16)
a thought re-iterated in Ezekiel:
"The soul that sins shall die.
The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father". (17)

Although the recompenses awarded are still assumed to be in this life – note the sharp contrast from the earlier quotation, where the son would pay for the father's sins!

Finally, the 'Apocalyptic'.

There was more paraphernalia in the religion of Zoroaster than detailed here, and allowance must be made for other less central (non-Persian?) embellishments of the central doctrines, taken from 'minority' Babylonian sources — notions of divine transcendence, the development of angelology and demonology, fantastic symbolism and cosmic imagery, re-interpreting prophecy in combination with visionary inspiration, 'end of the world' cataclysm, the messianic delivery and the 'day of judgement'. (18)    

All this additional material returned to Jerusalem with the exiles, but its development would have been the work of lower-class sects rather than the Temple-based rabbis. Over time, many of these sects prospered, incorporating various combinations of these subsidiary elements; the most successful were destined to form the early (albeit conflicting!) Christian communities. All Christ myths regurgitated this material — the sect that 'conquered', thanks to its adoption and institutionalization of a Roman emperor, introduced Jesus in its earliest (church recognized) gospel as saying:
"The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand …" (19)
Two verses earlier, Jesus goes into the desert where "Satan tempted him … but angels came and helped him" (20). His apocalyptic message is immediate:
"Remember this! There are some here who will not die until they have seen the Kingdom of God come with power" (21) and

"All these things will happen before the people now living have all died" (22)   

Reasons for the "success" of the absurd doctrines preached by the mythical Jesus (doctrines, like those cited above, falsified within decades of being stated) have been explored by me in earlier contributions to Investigator! (23)


(1) Mary Boyce Zoroastrians – Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (1979)
(2) The Essence of Christianity Ludwig Feuerbach (1957) p 73
(3) The German Ideology Karl Marx (1965) p 60
(4) see R C Zaehner The Teachings of the Magi (1956) pp 34-41
(5) Deut 26:14
(6) Jer 31:15
(7) Ex 20:5
(8) Is 14:20
(9) Jer 25:33
(10) R H Charles A Critical History of the Doctrine of a Future Life (1899) p 35
(11) Mary Boyce op cit pp 51-52
(12) for detailed (if a little dated) documentation see 'Eschatology' in James Hastings Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics (1918) vol 5 p 377.
(13) Is 26:19
(14) Gen 3:19
(15) Is 28:14
(16) Jer 31:30
(17) Ez 18:20
(18) D S Russell The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic (1964) p 19ff
(19) Mark 1:15
(20) Mark 1:13
(21) Mark 9:1
(22) Mark 13:30
(23) see especially: Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, Stanley Schachter When Prophecy Fails (1956)



(Investigator 122, 2008 September)


Bob Potter (Investigator 121) proposed that "most of the distinguishing doctrines of the early Christian Church originated…in ancient Persia…in the theology of Zoroaster."


Before detailing his main thesis Potter criticised the "illegal and shameful attack on Iraq costing at least 100,000 innocent lives…" and linked it to the Christianity of George Bush and Tony Blair.

The invasion gave prosperity and democracy to the Kurds, permits Iraq to exploit its oil wealth, toppled a dictator whose rule killed over 1,000,000, slowed the spread of atomic bomb technology, and enticed terrorists to die in Iraq rather than infiltrate worldwide. The 100,000 "innocent" deaths resulted largely from Shia and Sunni killing each other. This would have happened eventually anyway but, without international intervention, on a greater scale.

Potter's sort of attitude makes it politically difficult to stop oppression in other places. Can Potter justify on general ethical principles that evil dictators should not be stopped?

Potter also says, "…the more unsatisfactory this life appears the more important the next one will be and the more fervently it will be believed in." But what circumstances make life unsatisfactory? "Satisfactory" lives sometimes commit suicide, and the most "unsatisfactory" sometimes despise religion! Without criteria of "unsatisfactoriness" Potter's claim is tautologous and worthless.

Finally Potter mentions Jesus' predictions such as "All these things will happen before the people now living have all died" (Mark 13:30) and calls them "absurd". However, that was explained in #60.


Zoroaster (c.628-c.551 BC) was an Iranian religious reformer, born near Tehran, who reformed ancient worship that preceded him.

The Britannica Macropaedia says, "The debt of Israel to its eastern neighbours in religious matters is easy to demonstrate on a few precise points of minor importance but less so in other more important points such as dualism, angelology, and eschatology."

Potter, however, seeks to link Jewish/Christian doctrine to Persia on these very points — dualism, angelology, eschatology.

As with the similar claims that Bible writers copied Babylonian and Sumerian stories, the response is that we can't demonstrate anything in the Bible clearly quoted from these other sources. In the 19th century some scholars connected the book of Jonah to Greek and Assyrian stories — but that project eventually failed. The Bible does sometimes refer to other ancient books but not to Zoroaster.

From 605 to 586 BCE many Jews were shifted to Babylon but large groups returned to Judah in 537 BCE and the next century.

Despite a century of close proximity to the Babylonians the Jewish Scriptures did not incorporate Babylonian worship. Intermarriage occurred but was reversed when Jerusalem was repopulated and Jewish males divorced their Pagan wives. (Ezra 9-10)

From the Persian conquest of Babylon in 539 BCE until the first and biggest group of Jews returned to Judah was two years. If a century didn't convert the Jews, it's doubtful that two years would suffice.

Furthermore, Zoroaster's influence was not at that stage extensive. About 588 BCE he converted Vishtaspa a king near the Aral Sea. Xerxes (519-464 BC) of Persia was probably a follower but it's less certain that previous Persian kings were. Zoroaster's chief god "Ahura Mazda" was known before Zoroaster's time. Therefore, although inscriptions of Darius (548-486 BC) mention Ahura Mazda, he may have discovered this God independently of Zoroaster. Zoroastrianism became the official religion of Persia with the Sassanian dynasty after AD 224.

Clearly, when Cyrus conquered Babylon (539 BC) his Persian troops were not Zoroastrian evangelists!

Isaiah calls Cyrus of Persia "God's anointed" for freeing the Jews, and several other Persian rulers gave Jews favorable treatment. (Isaiah 45:1; Nehemiah 2:1-8; Esther 10) Nevertheless, Ezekiel prophesied judgment on Persia (38:5).

Potter's thesis that "most of the distinctive doctrines" were co-opted is based on a few general similarities:
•    Zoroaster preached about two gods at war, one good and the other evil — similar to Yaweh and Satan in the Bible.
•    The notion of life after death is unclear in the early Old Testament but became clear later due to Zoroastrian influence.
•    Zoroaster taught about the supernatural, including life after death, and good and bad angels.
The first thing to note is that general similarities do not prove copying or derivation. Consider how many movies show cities, policemen and gangsters without one production having copied another. The various movies independently adapted ideas and locations from the surrounding world.

Belief in the supernatural — including life after death, and God, demons and angels — originated long before Zoroaster. Archaeology supports that belief in an afterlife goes back 30,000 years — which Potter admits. (#121, p. 28)

The Bible teaches that the earliest humans believed in the supernatural. Genesis introduces conflict between God and the "Serpent". (Chapter 3) Job 1-2 reveals conflict between God and a supernatural opposer labelled "Satan". We therefore infer that "Satan" is the one represented by the Serpent of Genesis 3.

The point to notice is that the Bible places belief in both God and Satan with the first humans. If "dualism" — belief in two gods, one good the other evil — goes back so far, then its subsequent transmission could have been via many lines of human descent.

Archaeology, however, has not shown when belief in two conflicting gods originated. If it began before Zoroaster then both Zoroaster and the Old Testament could be independent presentations of older belief.

Similarly, the Bible mentions "angels" and "men" who by their actions and abilities would be supernatural agents in human form. (Genesis 3:24; 18:2; 19:1, 11; 21:17; 22:11) Again the Bible places the earliest of these at the dawn of humanity, and others in Abraham's time.


The idea of life after death develops gradually in the Bible. "You will not die" (Genesis 3:4) suggests that belief in life after death started with the first humans.

The word "sheol", translated "grave", "hell" and "pit", occurs in Genesis but without details. The Psalms, however, present "sheol" as the location of the dead and imply they may eventually leave sheol. (16:10; 30:3; 49:15)

Exodus 3:6 has God saying to Moses, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." Jesus commented that this implied a future resurrection since: "He is not the God of the dead, but of the living." (Matthew 22:23-33)

King Saul believed that Samuel although dead was conscious. (I Samuel 28) Since people often reflected their sovereign's beliefs this was probably a common belief in Israel.

Ecclesiastes gives the analysis of a "teacher" who investigates life and God by observing the physical world. Based on observation the teacher says: "For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other." (3:19) Then he asks: "Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth?" (3:21)

To ask such a question implies that belief in a "spirit" that survives death by "going upward" was the prevailing belief. But since humans, as far as can be observed, die like animals the teacher asks, "who knows?"

The teacher finally opts for faith in God — "Remember your creator" (12:1) — and concludes that at death "the spirit returns to God who gave it." (12:7)


In previous Investigator editions I've highlighted many Bible statements that turned out scientifically correct. Perhaps future Bible critics, centuries from now, will use such biblical anticipation of 20th-century discoveries to argue, "The Bible was first written in AD 2000." Such future critics, if they turn up, will be misguided fools misusing overlap of information to wrongly infer copying.

Their faulty logic is the same as viewing two westerns, each showing cowboys, saloons and gambling and concluding one copied the other. The truth is both Westerns independently incorporated information and history generally available. This would likely be true even if both used familiar names like Custer and Geronimo. With the Bible and Zoroaster we haven't even seen any coincidence of names.

The Old Testament suggests that belief in God, Satan, angels and survival of death go back to the dawn of humanity. Archaeology confirms that belief in supernatural entities, and life after death, began thousands of years before Zoroaster and was adopted in many societies. Without specific quotes we can't prove who copied from whom.         

Debating with a fundamentalist: Is it worth the effort?

Bob Potter

(Investigator 123, 2008 November)

I have no intention of answering "Anonymous" response to my Christian Origins (Investigator 121) paragraph by paragraph for reasons that will become apparent. In just seven pages, Christian Origins overviewed the latest discoveries and suppositions of Iranian scholarship during the last half-century and broadly related them to the changes in Jewish theological beliefs (reflected, in part, in the Holy Bible) in the period following the return of the Jews from Babylonian captivity. In my references, I directed readers to the work of the late Mary Boyce, universally recognized as the authority on ancient Zoroastrian doctrine (she translated and published scores of manuscripts never before available). Also references to the work of reputed scholars, R C Zaehner, R H Charles and D S Russell, along with 15 pertinent verses from the Christian Bible.

Anonymous has written a reply five pages long, citing a single sentence (out of context) from the Britannica Macropaedia, and then refers the reader to no less than ninety verses from he Bible! So much for his "reference source"! – the response of the Christian fundamentalist — his underlying 'philosophy' stands exposed. Apparently, all the 'true' Christian believer needs is knowledge of the Bible, as it is, as it always has been, as it always will be, until the end of time. Written or inspired by the Creator, every word of this frequently edited and modified bundle of (mostly) Jewish manuscripts is taken as the ultimate 'truth'. There can be no debate, there is NOTHING to debate about, NOTHING 'new' to learn…all knowledge of any theological worth can be found in that single volume. Scientists may deliberate about whatever they like, make discoveries that transform our lives on a daily basis, but for the fundamentalist the only function of 'meaningful' discussion is proselytization.

Once Science and Religion complemented each other

One of the refreshingly almost 'contemporary' reports of life in 'primitive' societies is found in the writings of Bronislaw Malinovsky. Here is a small quotation to start us off:
  "I have seen the savage hunter at work: he knows his animals and their habits; he is familiar with the properties of his weapons, the strength of his spear and the flight of his boomerang. I have trusted myself to savage sailors on their frail craft over dangerous seas and under trying conditions. They understand wind and weather, stability and tides, in a truly reliable, that is scientific way.  It is only because he is able to observe correctly and think clearly that, with his simple tools and limited co-operation, primitive man can master nature as well and effectively as he actually does." (1)

In the same article, Malinowski draws the distinction between 'science' and 'magic', warning the reader of the mistake of assuming that magic represented primitive science. Magic never undertakes to do that which primitive man can easily achieve by knowledge, manual skill and bodily effort, he insists. The savage never digs the soil "by magic", nor does he throw his spears by ritual or sail his canoes by spell:
"In Melanesia I studied an extensive and complicated system of garden magic.  The soil was first blessed for fertility in general; then the plots were cleared by perfectly rational and practical procedures. A second magical ceremony followed to fumigate the cleared ground and thus prevent blights, pests and insects. Then again came planting, done skillfully, practically and scientifically. But when the plants sprouted and there was nothing better to do but to hope for good luck, magic again was enacted in ceremony after ceremony, designed to make the crops strong and good. And so throughout the whole series the rites alternated with the activities, each aspect, the rational and the magical, kept absolutely distinct from the other. The same is true of most Melanesian magic and of magic all the world over." (2)

Elsewhere, Malinowsky describes the society's common funeral arrangements — the dying man, covered with flowers, surrounded by fruit and other delicacies to take with him on his journey to the next world. Messages are passed to him for transmission to those who have gone before.  It is an atmosphere immersed in affirmation and immortality "a communion between two worlds". As death approaches, relatives and friends throng around him, rubbing his body with valuables and sacramental gifts, murmuring rituals of comfort. (Malinowsky is reminded of the sacrament of Extreme Unction of the Eucharist as administered by the Catholic Church.) At last death occurs; the main actor has made his final exit – the most terrible and the most sacred experience of all 'religious' experience. The helplessness of humanity and hopelessness of the event are driven home to all participants. There follows an outburst of passionate grief, the survivors throw themselves on the corpse, fondle the dead remains, break out into loud wailing.  Then follows the conflict between the desire to retain the body and at the same time to be rid of it.    

But life must go on. A new generation is around. He lives in a world that is his living larder, raw material in spite of the unmanageable dangers surrounding him, wild animals, poisonous plants, storms and accidents. Here was a society where Science and Religion were at a much earlier stage of development – but they complemented each other. We know of no 'conflict' between the two fields.  Humankind was learning to 'take control of' the physical world', magic/religion was there to bring the members of the community together against a little understood and very frightening universe.  But this situation was to change. With the historical advance of society and the creation of feudal and nation states, religion was destined to play a new role for the 'rulers' of society.

As I was finishing this, my latest contribution to the Investigator, today's "Times" arrived. It is 20th September 2008. The Western world is in the throes of a "credit crunch" and various pundits have no real understanding of capitalist economics or, alternatively, shut their eyes and pray the common people will be satisfied with the homilies given them by Government spokespeople and will not investigate economic matters for themselves.  Splashed across a page of today's paper, I read a prayer by the Church of England's "Rapid Response Prayer Unit". (Did anyone know there was such a 'unit'?)
"Lord God…prices rise, debts increase, banks collapse, jobs are taken away, and fragile security is under threat. Loving God, meet us in our fear.
…Be a tower of strength amidst the Shifting sands, And a light in the darkness: Help us receive your gift of peace, And fix our hearts where true joys Are to be found, In Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen."
Whereas the above cited quotations from Malinowsky suggest that in that society the magic/religion beliefs/practices made positive contributions to the life and culture of the Melanesian peoples, today's Church presents itself as an anachronistic absurdity, contributing nothing of value to individuals of the 21st Century.

Historically Scientific Ideas prevail — even in fundamentalists

It is often not appreciated the extent to which scientific 'discoveries' have influenced and changed religious outlooks. When Johannes Kepler showed planets moved in ellipses instead of circles, when Galileo discovered craters on the moon, spots on the sun, and demonstrated new fixed stars could appear, none of these discoveries were viewed with indifference by established religion. On the contrary, they had as much impact on the religious outlook of the day as Darwinian evolution did, in the later Victorian age. In the Middle Ages, a circle was a perfect form, an ellipse an imperfect one; planets needed to move in circles to justify the perfection of God. Mediaeval religious thought was impregnated with the idea (dating back to Aristotle) that change and imperfection were properties of the sublunary sphere – the earth alone – all the heavenly regions and bodies were both perfect and changeless.

Today, we are so used to the idea of gravity, we can't imagine what a revolution in thought was caused by Newton's discoveries. Before then, the 'Biblical world' was believed – planets and their satellites had to be, in some way, perpetually guided and controlled in their courses by an extraneous power — a power universally supposed to be the hand of God. Then along came Newton, who showed no such controlling power was required (although, a fundamentalist himself, he continued to believe this 'power' necessary!). For mainstream theology, Newton's physics meant it was no longer necessary to see God as controlling the details of the working of the heavenly bodies. God remained designer and creator of a 'machine' which, once set in motion, required no supervision. For the 'thinking theologian', the earlier 'prayers for rain' etc. no longer served a meaningful function.   

During the last century, Darwinian ideas have been widely integrated with the biological sciences, and are transforming our knowledge of ourselves and pointing to countless, exciting medical possibilities in the future. Of course there are still ignorant religious fundamentalists challenging these advances. Fortunately, they are far removed from the laboratories (in body and mind!) where this progress is being forged. Unfortunately, though, they still wield tremendous influence in the non-academic corridors of political power: hence the need to explore briefly the differing way in which religion and society have inter-related in more recent times.

The Politics of Religion & Science

As I have indicated, in 'pre-written history', religion was the handmaiden of science. Gropingly, our ancestors tried to understand themselves, nature and society as best they could, a process that, at times, involved constantly repeating and reinforcing religious taboos, ceremonies and stories. Knowledge, in that form, was individually memorized, generalized throughout the community and passed from generation to generation.

However, this positive 'assessment of religion' needs re-appraisal with the emergence of social classes. Oppressors — be they warrior chiefs, kings or high priests — justified, safeguarded, promoted and fought for their narrow, self-centred interests by 'manufacturing' new religious ideas and financing a huge religious machine to awe, befuddle and reconcile the 'lower orders'. In return, the oppressed questioned, resisted and fought back — but necessarily often using variant and often explicitly rival religious ideologies. Religion and religious disputes thereby became both a means and a site for social struggles. Mostly, it was an unequal contest. The ideas of the oppressors were the dominant ideas of every social system known to mankind!

Hence the patriarchal solar cult against the female and communistic lunar cult, Jewish Zealots against Sadducee Herodians, Emperor Constantine's Nicene faction against Jamesian heretics, Cathars against the medieval Catholic hierarchy, Shia against Sunni, Protestants against Catholics. The list is endless. Only with the 1789 French Revolution was that age-old pattern decisively broken, although even there the necessity of generating intoxicating enthusiasms and obfuscatory illusions remained (e.g. Robespierre's "Temple of Reason"). The bourgeois revolution is by definition a minority revolution — so in order to mobilize the majority, the bourgeoisie needed to deny or cloak its "real interests". (3) Dissembling, downright lying can still take religious form (although now not necessarily so) – witness George W Bush telling us that God had told him to "go get those weapons of mass destruction", although a year later his subsequent version became, "God told me to end the tyranny in Iraq". (4)  

Tackling the social role and function of religion in a few pages is a colossal task.  I will endeavor to relate my points mostly to the C of E, the Catholics and Protestant communities. My remarks should encapsulate and illustrate the social function of these bodies, without the necessity to compare their secondary theological beliefs. Although it is the present Church with which we must concern ourselves, here and now, the present is nothing but the historic past flowing into an uncertain future. The present is really nothing, a fleeting nano-moment, and, of course, the Church of England, itself, actually claims, celebrates and promotes itself as the "unbroken continuation of the early apostolic and later medieval universal church". (5)

The Church of England – and non-conformists

Though normally subordinate to the feudal aristocracy the church served as co-exploiter and co-ruler. It provided the bulk of state administrators, oversaw the production of intellectual ideas, and exploited "vast manorial estates" which put bishops on a par with the greatest military barons in the land. (6)

The church counted as the biggest landlord in England. (Lambeth Palace's bloated portfolio of stocks and shares, real estate holdings and other such assets currently amount to £5.67 billion, according to the Church Commissioners report, 2007) Huge wealth was amassed, not least due to the celibacy rule, there being no legal children to inherit title or rights over assets. The clergy has never constituted an undifferentiated social class. Under feudalism bishops lived like princes.

There were, though, numerous low paid priests. John Bull (circa 1340-81) was typical of this stratum economically. A humble, roving preacher, he just about managed to eke out a living. Of course, in his untypical case he went on to become one of the famed leaders of the 1381 Peasants' Revolt. In the main, at a parish level, priests acted as subalterns — they loyally relayed the pope's encyclicals, preached the virtues of submission to God's appointed rulers and insisted upon the holy duty Christians had of paying tithes in full and on time (which amounted to one-tenth of produce or income).

With the Act of Supremacy (1534) Henry VIII broke with Rome and seized the wealth of the monasteries! Yet the church remained legally and administratively a continuity: e.g, the system of church courts and canon law were left more or less untouched, along with traditional doctrine. Hence the continued stress on transubstantiation, the sacrament, contrition and doing penance, and the ideas of purgatory, hell, individual salvation and other such mumbo jumbo.

Since the 16th century there have been all manner of theological, liturgical and organisational changes. While the Church of England stayed firmly catholic, it incorporated various Protestant elements, innovations and modes of thought, including those adopted from Martin Buber (1491-1551), Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) and John Calvin (1509-64). What in particular marked out the Church of England from both the Catholic and Protestant churches on the continent was its accepting and being under state control.

The Church of England's clergy became to all intents and purposes self-confessed agents of the crown. And at a local or village level the nationalized church exercised what amounted to a naked dictatorship on behalf of the state. Everyone was obliged to attend its services. Everyone had to pay tithes. Everyone was subject to its jurisdiction. Heresy, non-attendance, working on Sundays or saints' days, sexual deviancy were all subject to church-sanctioned punishment. Of course, the rich could and did buy themselves out, but undoubtedly in post-reformation England the parish priest functioned as the first line, or the principal means, of social control.

This was fully appreciated by the monarchy and its higher bureaucracy. The parish church was seen as keeping the common herd passive and obedient. Religion was venerated as the crown's chief ideological prop. "People are governed by the pulpit more than the sword in time of peace," said Charles I. (7) Apart from members of the aristocracy the priest was the best-educated member of society — as Christopher Hill observes, in an age before newspapers, radio and television, it is "scarcely" possible to "exaggerate the influence the parson had in forming the political, economic and moral outlook of his parishioners". (8) This is where today's Church of England comes from, including its parish organization, property and hierarchical social relations. Surely something that must be fully incorporated into any proper historical account, not ham-fistedly "left out".

The English revolution saw a temporary rupture. The Church of England was disestablished. The Book of Common Prayer was replaced by the Directory of Public Worship. Bishops were removed from parliament and had their great landed estates expropriated. Tithes were disputed. Presbyterianism became the conservative establishment. Parliament replaced the monarch as the source of church authority. However about one quarter of the English clergy refused to conform. After all, 'the world had been turned up-side down'. In conditions of revolutionary flux independent sects flourished and even came to dominate. They were self-governing. They elected their own ministers. They were self-financing. They preached social equality and militant republicanism. Correlated to this democratic spirit, congregations were popular, lower class, female and combative.

With the end of the short-lived Commonwealth in 1660, there was a partial religious as well as a partial political counter-revolution. Bishops had their lands and their seats in the House of Lords restored but never recovered their political domination. Church courts continued to lose power and narrow in scope. But ministers not ordained by bishops, those deemed theologically untrustworthy — in other words, the defeated puritans — were driven out from the re-established Church of England. Around two thousand ministers (along with 150 dons and schoolteachers) were dismissed from their posts without compensation — hence they joined the independents in non-conformism.

While this body of non-conformists endlessly produced theological divisions and abundant varieties of new sects, there can be no disputing the underlying social class issues and forces involved. The Church of England was after the 1640-60 interregnum thoroughly, fawningly, monarchical, aristocratic, moderate Whig or Tory, and bound up with landed interests. (e.g. which particular ordained minister got which particular parish was typically down to the benefactor: a bishop, the crown, the local squire or some corporate body ie cathedrals, trusts and Oxford and Cambridge colleges). Amazingly, this system still pertains!   Patronage is inherited by title or land and means that the strangest individuals get to appoint vicars. Note: in the BBC sitcom The Vicar of Dibley, it is the Cambridge-educated toff, the rich right-winger, David Horton who is the benefactor.

At a parish level the Church of England generally embodied the unity of squire and parson. The pulpit represented, strove to serve the party of order, the party of privilege and established tradition. The parish church really was the Tory Party at prayer. Congregations were predominantly middle class, deferential and smugly bigoted. In rural areas especially, this remains the case. Of course, that did not, and does not, mean the 'lower sort' entirely stayed away. Some did and still do join the C of E.  – albeit they tend to constitute the most docile, the least questioning, the lackeys, the dupes, the most dependent —  "the deserving poor".

Not surprisingly, non-conformism continued to attract rather different congregations to their chapels and meeting houses — those opposed to the monarchy, anti-Tories, radicals, rebels, levellers, the independently minded, and they were correspondingly persecuted. Non-conformists were barred from universities and official government posts, arrested, flogged, fined, imprisoned, etc. John Bunyan (1628-1688) wrote Pilgrim's Progress while serving a 12-year stretch in Bedford gaol.

Though driven underground, the non-conformists could not be crushed. The 1688 'glorious' revolution was therefore swiftly followed by an act of toleration, giving the king's protestant subjects freedom of worship. The motivation was clear. Unity of Great Britain against Catholic counterrevolution. As a result, the Church of England's monopoly gave way to multiple choice. So began the legally accepted division of the nation into church and chapel.

Especially after the Napoleonic wars, and then the failure of Chartism, a refracted non-conformism served as an alternative to revolutionary political involvement and change. Quietism, resignation, gradualism and success in business increasingly characterized Presbyterianism, Quakerism, Methodism, etc. Nonetheless, social class differences continued to separate Anglicanism from non-conformism. Studies show that, though the relationship between class and religion has become more fragmented, "broad patterns of behaviour are evident" — participation in the Church of England "has tended to involve the middle classes", ie not that many of the activists are working class. Anglicans are therefore still "more likely to vote Conservative" rather than Labour. On the other hand Methodism "attracts greater numbers of working class participants". (9) In Britain, due to successive waves of poor Irish migrants, and now Poles, the Roman Catholic Church in Britain has overwhelmingly working class congregations.
Note: Roman Catholics only secured equal rights in 1829 (and there remains in force the 1701 Act of Settlement, which bars Catholics from inheriting the crown).

True, in the 19th and 20th centuries the Church of England triumphantly spread over the globe; it followed, made way for, or took over from the British Empire. Two overseas dioceses in 1800 increased to 72 in 1882, and to 450 (in 28 provinces) in the 1990s. Yet, as we have seen, with the unstoppable growth of dissent and non-conformism, the Church of England saw its political influence and legal powers slowly drain away and with the end of compulsory attendance its dreary services attracted fewer and fewer souls. The decline became ever more pronounced with the rise of the working class. "In Victorian Britain…the least religious social group, considered in terms of religious practice, was urban working class adult males". (10)

As the C of E lost out externally, it became more divided internally. Indeed, today, as can be seen by the Lambeth conference, the C of E, and the Anglican communion as a whole, is split into three well entrenched parties: broad-church compromisers, high-church Anglo-Catholics, and evangelical Protestant fundamentalists. Women bishops and practising homosexual clergy are merely today's particular obsession.

The Church of England has an elaborate, well-tested and unified line of command, which at the top disappears or merges into the state core. By way of analogy it has field marshals, generals, brigadiers, lieutenants, captains, sergeants, corporals and privates. At the pinnacle sits the monarch; amongst Elizabeth Windsor's many gaudy constitutional titles is 'Supreme governor of the Church of England'. Here is the field marshal. The canons of the Church of England state: "We acknowledge that the queen's excellent majesty, acting according to the laws of the realm, is the highest power under god in this kingdom, and has supreme authority over all persons in all causes, as well ecclesiastical as civil". (11)

Today, though, "supreme authority" really lies with the prime minister. After a formal 'consultation' with the Crown Nominations Commission, he or she chooses the archbishops to the provinces of Canterbury and York and the 43 diocesan bishops (the generals and brigadiers). What about the assistant bishops, cathedral clergy and 200-300 vicars who operate under the command of each bishop? They are lieutenants and captains: ie, an integral part of the officer corps (a few parish priests will expect promotion up the ladder to the highest ranks). Moreover, it can usefully be pointed out, many licensed priests have time-fixed terms of tenure — they rely on bishops for reappointment. Those who fail to conform and toady can be evicted and are thereby made jobless and homeless.

A stifling and oppressive hierarchical relationship symbolised by the fact that no member of the clergy can be instituted and inducted into a parish without first swearing the oath of allegiance to the monarch and taking the oath of canonical obedience "in all things lawful and honest" to the bishop. (12) The Church of England is certainly no democratic "church of congregations", a fact testified to by the homosexual Anglo-catholic, Michael Hampson (a former vicar). The same first-hand source confirms from his own bitter experience, that the "parish clergy are lowest rung…of that hierarchy, sworn to allegiance and obedience". (13) He complains that the obedience oath is more than symbolic. Parish clergy actually do the bidding of their bishop. Vicars are not elected by those below. Nor are they accountable to them — they are minions of their bishop … and through them the bourgeois state.

Theological doctrine and ritual practice differ from community to community, congregation to congregation; speaking as an 'outsider', after half-a-century's study/observation of 'Christianity in action', my feeling is that every characteristic of one community finds 'representation' in every other.     

The Future of Religion?

In its early days religion served a positive function. But the moot question today (which is one I am exploring) is: Is there any sort of progressive role or function for religion today; can it help us build a society of 'extreme democracy', 'socialism/communism' — let's not argue about the NAME we might choose — a society NOT grounded on permanent war, mass starvation, economic crises…whatever? My gut feeling is 'no'! — nowadays religion is utterly reactionary; in principle it is a major part of society's problems.

 This is NOT to say that religious people will not participate in, will not help forward the construction of a sane society. True they must be educated and encouraged to learn to accept this world, to face (what for them might at first seem unacceptable) realization that Bertie Russell was simply "stating the obvious" when he said:
"A drop of water is not immortal; it can be resolved into oxygen and hydrogen.  If, therefore, a drop of water were to maintain that it had a quality of 'aqueousness' which would survive its dissolution, we should be inclined to be skeptical." (14)
When we reach the stage of universal realization that if we are to survive on this planet, we must radically change the way we order our society, millions of individuals will be swept, propelled into activity; amongst them will be the presently educationally and politically backward (the Anonymous individuals amongst us), currently inert or hostile to the radical changes required (and those millions include masses of Christians, Hindus, Muslims, et al).

These people will come to accept the wisdom of Russell's above analogy, to accept this world (the only world) rather than seek a "pie in the sky when they die". Religion today only serves to divert, to lull, to confuse; any residual religious ideas retained in their heads of the members of the 'extreme democracy' will soon be perceived as "out of synch" with the social world arising about them.

Leaving aside the 'social role' religious bodies have historically played, the 'spiritual value' contribution offered by ALL 'faiths' is that they purport to offer a 'meaning' or 'purpose' to our lives. This is the great misunderstanding of humanity throughout much of its existence.  Referring to the work of Malinowsky, we considered our ancestors 'making sense of' the world', learning from their everyday practice. The duty of science does not end with showing their argument for the supernatural to be fallacious, it needs investigate the origin of fallacy and show the nature of the process by which it has arisen. In the case of early man seeking a 'first cause' to explain the apparent 'order of the universe', we don't need look far for explanation of this misunderstanding, as Karl Pearson suggested more than a century ago:
"So soon as man begins to form conceptions from his sense-impressions, to combine, to isolate, and to generalize, then he begins to project his own reason into phenomena, to replace in his mind the stored sense-impressions of past concatenations …   He begins to confuse the scientific law, the product of his own reason, with the more concatenation of phenomena, the natural law… The reason we find in natural phenomena is surely put there by the only reason of which I have any experience, namely the human reason.  The mind of man in the process of classifying phenomena and formulating natural law introduces the element of reason into nature, and the logic man finds in the universe is but the reflection of his own reasoning faculty." (15)

In a nutshell, Pearson (from his grave) explains to us why we are mystified and bamboozled by modern physics — the work on 'relativity' and 'quantum mechanics'. We know these theories are closer representations of the world we inhabit than the outdated theories of Isaac Newton (every satellite sent into space demonstrates this!), yet we cannot even imagine electron behaviour conforming to Schrodinger's conceptualizations. We are stuck with Newtonian terms, such as 'force', 'matter' and 'mass', and necessarily continue to use this obsolete terminology for formulating our thinking.

A few centuries ago, people couldn't imagine a world that wasn't flat. Now we happily accept the earth is a 'globe'. The continuing growth of knowledge will eventually enable us to handle that two electrons created together are forever 'entangled' and that whatever affects one will instantly affect the other – no matter how far apart they are, etc.  Certainly, none of these 'new problems' will lead the informed and educated individual of the future to seek a 'supernatural' solution.

More importantly, a 'new society', built here on Earth by human beings, rather than an imagined 'heavenly kingdom', will have no need of the sacred texts of the world's archaic 'faiths', hiding in the darkness where scientific research has so far failed to explore.


(1)    B Malinowsky  Science Religion (1931) pp 70-71.
(2)    Ibid p. 73
(3)    see J Conrad Fantastic Reality (2007) p 12
(4)    Guardian 7/10/05
(6)    M Bloch Feudal Society (1965)  Vol 2  p 352
(7)    quoted in Ibid p 77
(8)    C Hill The Century of Revolution 1603-1715 (1967) p76
(10)    Ibid
(12)    Ibid
(13)    M Hampson Last Rites (2006) p 33
(14)    B Russell What I Believe (1925)
(15)    K Pearson The Grammar of Science (1892)  pp 80-81