Three articles appear below:
Christian Origins: the Iranian Contribution 121
Christian Origins in Iran? 122
Debating with a Fundamentalist: Is It Worth the
Christian Origins: The Iranian Contribution
(Investigator 121, 2008
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
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)
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.
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
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."
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
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.
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.
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
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.
wrote the later Isaiah (a
text that contrasts so strongly with the
O dwellers in the dust,
awake and sing for joy!" (13)
The exile experience helped
produce another profound modification of
The earlier view had been
that 'soul' represented the unity of body and
"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
"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!
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
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
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
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
(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
(12) for detailed (if a
little dated) documentation see 'Eschatology'
in James Hastings Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics (1918) vol 5 p
(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
(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)
CHRISTIAN ORIGINS IN IRAN?
(Investigator 122, 2008
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
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
Debating with a fundamentalist: Is it worth the effort?
(Investigator 123, 2008
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
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
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)
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
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'?)
God…prices rise, debts increase, banks collapse, jobs are taken
away, and fragile security is under threat. Loving God, meet us in our
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.
…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."
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.
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)
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".
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
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
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
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.
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."
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'
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.
Malinowsky Science Religion (1931) pp
(3) see J
Conrad Fantastic Reality (2007) p 12
Bloch Feudal Society (1965) Vol 2 p
quoted in Ibid p 77
Hill The Century of Revolution 1603-1715 (1967)
Hampson Last Rites (2006) p 33
Russell What I Believe (1925)
Pearson The Grammar of Science (1892) pp