February 20, 2004
By Lil Joe
This essay reviews the political nature of religion and philosophy in class society, especially in the early Afro-Asian-Mediterranean cultures of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Israel, and Persia. In these societies, class politics assumed the form of political religion. In the Greco-Ionian polis philosophy arose, in the 6th century BCE, as an alternative world-view. We note, in addition, a movement from kinship (clan-tribal) structures to class structures in which the most powerful, economically dominant class is the most powerful, politically dominant class and thereby its ideology dominates, rather than the religious perspectives of the old privileged clan-tribe.
Religion posits gods and devils as the basis of material existence and the justification for the dominant relations of production, family, morality, politics, and so on. It is therefore conservative and reactionary where changes threaten the status quo.
Every person is a social individual and member of a society. This society is a social whole in which individuals are functional parts based on the level of development of productive forces inherited from preceding generations, distribution of labor, work, production, class, family, and political system.
Cultural world-views in human society are the product of a manifold experience of socialization of individuals resulting from material (economic) and spiritual (social, ideational) conditioning. Religion or/and philosophy is the self-conscious effort to understand and act correctly in this world.
The traditions of the previous generation, result from the sociopolitical realities faced by a people. Where there are class cultures, it is the most powerful, economically dominant class that is the most powerful, thus politically dominant class that determines the dominant religious culture in their economic class interests. Over time – and in Egypt, Babylonia, and Israel, for example, we are talking thousands of years – this class culture penetrates the whole of society, and anchors within. It’s a complete world-view, internalized by the exploited classes, and as such oppressed masses.
By their situation the exploited classes and oppressed masses in the ancient cultures become accustomed to exploitation and oppression as natural or/and the will of god, fate and what have you as preached by the religious castes century after century. The traditions established by the religious caste and the state internalized by the masses becomes their inner jailer which prevents not only acting against the ruling classes and castes, but fear to even think critically for fear of offending clairvoyant gods.
As Marx once said: the traditions handed down by previous generations are a dead weight on the shoulders of the living. The problem is that these traditions seem natural, and preserve the existing society – its economic activities, classes, and political institutions from one generation to the next.
There are times, however, when fundamental changes in technology, and, consequently, in economic behavior (mode of appropriation) and corresponding changes in socio-economic relations of production undergo rapid and fundamental changes. It is only then that the traditional beliefs no longer explain the world, as the old world passing makes the institutions and ideas characteristic of the old world appear not just outmoded, but wrong.
It is during such times, historically, that things, institutions and ideas once held permanent and sacred are challenged, tossed aside by the new techno-class forces. The old class politics, political institutions and ideologies, property-relations, and such are regarded as inadequate if not decadent, and wrong. Consequently the changes in technology, the productive forces were at once incremental and accelerated throughout the economy, sooner or later result in the new social forces challenging the ancient regime.
New ideas evolve from the critique of the old. But the information that directs these new ideas are the product of the new, evolving productive forces, modes of appropriation and changing relations of production engendered by contact, especially conquest by or conquests of foreign peoples, with other cultures coming into contact and blending. These advances in science and human reasoning explain adequately the new realities of the changed situation.
This type of evolution of social conditions and the rise of new ideas occurred over several centuries throughout the Afro-Asian-Mediterranean world. The rise of materialist philosophy in the Greco-Ionian city cannot, however, be understood outside the context of the changes in the entire region, and thus in context with and contrast to the religious ideological struggles in Asia.
Philosophical materialism as it arose in the Greco-Ionian city-states is special in that it is human centered rather than gods centered. Human senses are valid, and human reason determinate. Thus the materialist philosophy is human freethinking, therefore implicit if not explicit criticizing, or at any rate ignoring the hitherto dominant religious ideologies and belief systems handed from the past, by the authority of priests in the present.
The Greco-Ionian materialist philosophers opened the door to empirical sciences to develop on a human, sensuous foundation. This materialist epistemology – the recognition of the objective existence of the external, material universe as the universal – dispenses with gods, spirits, ancestors, astrological charts, ghosts, devils, karma, and thus creators. It directly ignores, if not openly criticizes, the notion of any 'supernatural' causes in nature or society. This undermines the authority of the priests.
It is because the authority of the priests, caste or not, is so deeply entrenched in the psyche of the people by acculturation – passed from one generation to the next by the very processes of socialization and upbringing. Children implicitly trust their parents and for thousands of years the parents accept the authority of priests and the teachings, and the authority of prophets, oracles, priests, sorcerers, astrologers, poets, soothsayers and the like.
These economic parasites thrive where there is darkness of ignorance and superstition, and the ever-present fear of offending the gods, for whom the prophets, poets, soothsayers, priests, astrologers, oracles, and such claim to represent.
I am reminded of a passage in the prophetic book of Malachi where he said that those who do not give a tenth of their yearly crops or/and animal reproduction to the priests are in fact “robbing god"!
Speaking on behalf of the Levites (priestly caste in Israel who appropriates as a religious tax ten percent of the peasants produce, cattle offspring, and so on) Malachi thundered to the Jewish workers and peasants:
Will a man rob God? Ye have robbed me. But ye say: Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings. Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation.
Now, anyone familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures (the Christian's so-called “Old Testament”) is familiar with the jealousy, violence, and brutality of the god Jehovah of Israel. It scared the shit out the Jews – the idea that they had robbed this god and will be cursed by him as a consequence. In fact, in the opening of his “prophecy” to the Jews, Malachi reminded them of the consequence of Jehovah's wrath:
Was not Esau Jacob's brother? Says the Lord: yet I loved Jacob, and I hated Esau, and laid his mountains and his heritage waste for the dragons of the wilderness.
The rule of religious ideology in a culture is, however, the rule of ignorance, superstition and fear. The rule of reason, on the other hand, when put to the benefit of humanity, is enlightenment and freedom from the tyranny of the superstitious ideas of religion, whether of a religious caste or of the state.
Materialist philosophy is the human attempt to fathom the ontological meaning: what is existence and who am I in the scheme of things, and by reason the axiological issues regarding purposeful human activity, thus ethical, and consequently political issues. There is no higher authority than human reason and the scientific methodology.
Thus part of this essay is motivated to critique the contemporary or modern myth circulating in certain circles that assert that the materialist philosophers in Asia Minor – the Greco-Ionian city-states – derived their materialist godless theories from Egyptian priests or/and Babylonian astrologers.
The Egyptian priest as source of godless materialism (which is itself a conceptual oxymoron) make the assertion that the atomist theory was “first” articulated in the reactionary mysticism of the Mystery School by Egyptian priests, for instance, by asserting, without an iota of evidence to support it, that the atomist theory articulated by Leucippus and Democritus was somehow “stolen” from the Egyptian priest's religious belief in the Atum – the sun-god!
But the only thing that the theory of Atoms have in common with the belief in sun-gods is a similarity in the English language of the spelling of Atom and Atum! Otherwise there is nothing but an assertion that the two terms have an identical meaning without a fragment of evidence to back it. They have not produced, for example, a single document where the Egyptian priests in no uncertain terms argue that the material universe is comprised of tiny indivisible bits of matter of different shapes, and sizes and weight that combine to form the elements.
In the political function of religion in Egypt, Babylonia, and Israel, it was not possible that freethinking should arise in those kingdom-empires, let alone that materialism and atheism was taught by priests. It is evident today, by judging the reaction of priests to science over the centuries – Hypatia, Bruno, Galileo, and the teachings of Marx, Darwin and so on, that the priests thrive in ignorance and superstition as the basis for their authority, and political power.
The Egyptian, Persian, and Hebrew priests presented the world-view authorized by prophets and priests of the ruling classes, derived supposedly from communication with a god. Thus the authority of the priests is based on their ordination by institutions that claim the heritage of the founders of their religions.
But, by contrast, the materialistic conception of nature, humanity, and human history, is based on the recognition of empirical data by the senses, analyzed by human reason and that alone is the certain basis for ascertaining truth.
Bound-up with these issues or questions are the socio-individual axiological issues and questions: how am I to behave toward the fellow members of my community, whom I need to survive. What is the relationship between man and men, man and woman, woman and women, family to family, clan to clan, tribe to tribe, class to class, kingdom to kingdom, nation and nation?
The ontological and axiological issues are of course engendered by the fact that human beings exist and must cooperate if they are to continue to exist. The world-view of a given people is therefore practical theory that unites a community and provides meaning and justification of leadership authority, subordination and discipline. That is, an objective morality of rules of conduct, regulating socio-individual behavior.
World-views provide human communities with explanation and justification for needed leadership-authority and rules that regulate socio-individual behavior. This need is true of all social animals, whether an ant colony, a herd of herbivore animals on savannas or plains, birds of a feather which flock together, carnivorous animals which must co-operate in hunting. Of course, with the lower animals, such cooperation is based on the instinct evolved in each species.
Homo sapiens base their social organization, however, on a conscious division of labor: hunting, gathering, herding, horticulture, domestication of plants and animals, agriculture, handicraft and industry – all of which requires voluntary cooperation. These learned behaviors are reinforced by culture rather than instinct. The level of development of the productive forces of a community, their technology – from Paleolithic hand ax by percussion flaking to the electric powered production of computer chips and satellites – requires cooperation, and often authority and subordination and an individual sense of duty to perform assigned tasks. Leaders prize obedience, reliability, and discipline for efficient effectiveness.
Natural community based on kinship, hunter-gatherers, herders, horticulturalists, and so on – natural religion – or so-called “animism” explained the mysteries of existence to the satisfaction of ontological issues; they evolved a world-view that reinforced the practical axiological compulsion (morality, duty, discipline, obedience, division of labor, work and rules of distribution of game hunted, roots, fruits, and herbs.
Religious Leaders – Shaman, Priests, and Prophets
The religious leader – medicine man or witch doctor, or rather in reality a medical doctor – claims his or her healing power is based on channeling the spirits into or away from human conditions, illness. They use various herbs and/or roots to cure specific illnesses but do so while at the same time mumbling magical incantations, so that the people cured think it was the magic incantation rather than the medicine brewed that “healed” them. The medicine man or witch doctor thus makes himself appear irreplaceable since only they have the power to enter the “spirit world,” cast out demons, and so on.
As communities evolved from hunting and gathering and herding to the domestication of plants and animal husbandry populations increased and clans merged into tribes and villages. Tribes engaged in trade, property evolved, and also wars between tribes, which gave rise to war-chiefs. (Hunters were at the same time warriors, as the case may be.) These men of arms protected pre-agricultural villages from tribes of marauders or led them in pillages and sacking. (Joshua in the Book of Joshua was such a war-chief.)
Consequently with the changes in material conditions, the functions of the shaman also changed – from doctors divining cures of patients into priests representing the “will” or “commandments” of god or the gods, demanding that the people obey the war-chiefs, who by territorial expansion changed into kings. The function of the medicine man and the war chief was to serve the people. But the agricultural village settlements evolved into cities. A power shift occurred which reversed the function of the king – the role of the people was to serve both the gods and the kings and the role of the king was to rule.
These animist religions regulated sex, marriage, and mating, family and lineage, reproduction (procreation) – all politically authorized as the will of the gods or god through anointing the power of the king. In the early Mesopotamian city-states the kings appropriated at the same time the function of high priest. The rule of these priest-kings was sustained by lineage; privileged clans also engendered the authority of elders. The kings of Egypt declared themselves gods descended from the god Horus.
In every society members perform mental as well as material labor. In societies based on class divisions, however, mental labor, including management, education, and so on, is an alienated form. The priests, scribes and ruling class state bureaucrats, law makers and so on perform intellectual labor representing the general interest of the economic order whereas the lives of peasants, workers, slaves, serfs, etc. are filled with manual labor, skilled or unskilled, the majority of their waking hours.
But that's just it! Before a group of intellectuals, politicians, priests can live from the produce and products of the labor of others, the labor productivity of the laboring classes must have reached the level of surplus so that further division of labor or specialization enables those not engaged in material or manual labor to appropriate the labor or products of the labor of others. Inherent in these relations of production are therefore conflicts of economic interests that become conscious class struggle.
Every class struggle is a political struggle, in that the laboring classes and toiling masses struggle to gain control of their labor, and the products of their labor and will inevitably confront the political organization of the ruling classes – that is, the State. In the clash of class interests in battle of class against class the existing ruling class has state power and the laboring classes want to take state power, elevating its position from ruled to rulers by destroying the existing ruling class and state.
Under such conditions the old tribal bonds break down, and class divisions appear in the society itself. The more productive, fertile land yields higher produce output than less fertile lands. The greater the output the more surplus is produced for the market, commodity production, and the owners of those more productive farms become wealthy in contrast to the poorer farms engaged only in subsistence farming.
The farmers engaged in surplus produce and trade, consequently, sell his surpluses on the market or else to merchants and become wealthy whereas those who are engaged in subsistence farming remain poor.
With surplus produce and handicraftsmen locating into towns together with merchants, and artisans engaged also in commodity production, merchants become a relatively independent class. They purchase from local farmers and artisans and travel to distant lands to trade for articles produced in those distant lands and return to their own land to sell those foreign products. The merchants accumulate wealth and power, along side the wealthy farmers who also come to live in the towns.
On the other hand, the poorer farmers come to depend upon credit to obtain implements of production from artisans or merchants, and generally it is the merchants who buy-up the surplus handicraft products and sell them to farmers or to distant customers. The use of money as a medium of exchange becomes the standard of value, and measure of value in the form of coins. Thus the debtors that borrow money with which to purchase other goods become debtors whose land can be lost, by foreclosure, or compelled by economic straits to sell their children into slavery to satisfy debts.
The wealthy farmers accumulate more and more land, which is more and more worked by an ever-increasing quantity of slaves, including prisoners of war sold into slavery. The wealthy farmers turn management of their country estates over to hired brains, while they and their families acquire relatively lavish residences in the towns. With greater and greater prosperity, these towns quickly become major cities in these empires.
The old social organization become politicized, as the former tribal warriors become a standing army to protect both the towns and farmers from foreign raiders and also become dependent upon the wealthy for food or money. The old war chiefs become kings, with their base of operation being in the cities they protect.
In political society, religion is transformed from a cultural to a political function. The high priest and the priesthood are part and parcel of the wealthy, which places its high temple in the capital, working hand and hand with the palace. The high priesthood works hand and glove with the bureaucracy in the political government. In such political societies religion cannot avoid the political.
The political function of religion in class relations is to provide the status quo, the ruling class and the state government with a spiritual justification. The power of religion is its spiritual authority, supposedly derived from gods. Religion predates civilization, by which I mean political class society, in which the wealthy do not work and those that work are not wealthy. The most powerful of the wealthy classes determine the politics which control society.
The pre-political religion cemented a tribal communal people on the basis of common held beliefs, rituals, and taboos. But this religion transforms into a political party that provides by its historical authority ordination of the economic order which inheres in extremes of wealth and poverty and uses its authority to sanction, to authorize (if you will) the political state, which is an apparatus of violence and of oppression representing the general interests of the ruling classes. Thus this politicized religion joins with the state to engender a culture of domination, authority and subordination, obedience.
Religious laws came to reflect the material interests of the proprietors against the propertyless. The chief-priests or priest-king, or “prophet” or “messenger” of gods thus by invoking god's ordinance declares divine authority of the courts protecting property rights.
From the "priest-king" Hammurabi's "Code":
# 6. If any one steal the property of a temple or of the court, he shall be put to death, and also the one who receives the stolen thing from him shall be put to death.
# 7. If any one buy from the son or the slave of another man, without witnesses or a contract, silver or gold, a male or female slave, an ox or a sheep, an ass or anything, or if he take it in charge, he is considered a thief and shall be put to death.
# 8. If any one steal cattle or sheep, or an ass, or a pig or a goat, if it belong to a god or to the court, the thief shall pay thirtyfold therefor; if they belonged to a freed man of the king he shall pay tenfold; if the thief has nothing with which to pay he shall be put to death.
Similarly from the “prophet” Moses 10 Commandments:
Deuteronomy 9 "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s....
15. "Thou shalt not steal.
The Torah's "Thou shalt not steal" is stated in the Qu'ran chapter 5 verses 38-9: "As for the thief, male or female, cut off his or her hands, but those who repent. After a crime and reform shall be forgiven by God for God is forgiving and kind."
Thus the Code of Hammurabi and the Law of Moses presuppose societies comprised of property-owners and non-owners, rich and poor, patriarchal families, and classes – poor peasants, and rich landed aristocrats, slaves and slave owners, and so on. Thus, those laws were written in the economic interests of the rich against the poor, of men against the women, of slave-owners against the slaves, and so on.
Moreover, the court system in class society is a class court. By attributing the laws that defend the economic interests of the economic dominant classes to the “will of god,” the priests and prophets articulate and give divine sanction to the laws, and its penalties for breaking these laws. Political religious authorities represent class power, whether that authority be sacred texts or ordained priests.
Just as the tribal warriors are displaced by a disciplined, authoritarian professional army, managed by a leadership core which has economic connections, wealthy priests displace the gentile warriors as the religious authority of the elders or priestly caste is supplanted by a disciplined cadre of professional priests, a hierarchy which culminates in a political “chief priest,” or “high priest.”
In natural religion tribal shamans or priests were medicine men or medicine women who served a practical function as doctors. In class societies, the traditional role of such religious figures is supplanted and separated from the masses. The politicized priests become responsible to the hierarchy which provides and defends their authority with legitimacy so long as they say and do as they are told.
The politicization of religion in the early political societies, Mesopotamia and Egypt occurred 6,000 years ago, a thousand years before Moses and two thousand before St. Paul. With St. Paul the political function of religion is systemic and complete.
In the 13th chapter of Paul's Epistle to the Romans he states:
1: Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. 2: Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. 3: For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: 4: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. 5: Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. 6: For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. 7: Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.
To the Ephesians, in the 6th chapter Paul wrote:
5: Slaves, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; 6: Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; 7: With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men:
In his instruction to his disciple Titus, in chapter 2, Paul wrote that as part of his ministry, preaching to servants and slaves, Titus should:
9.Exhort servants to be obedient unto their own masters, and to please them well in all things; not answering again; 10: Not purloining, but shewing all good fidelity; that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things.
The political function of religious priests and doctrines serves the interests of the wealthy classes, the property owners and slave owners, landlords and capitalists and slaves are told to be obedient and go an extra mile of servitude with gladness of heart, rather than motivation by fear of punishment. This includes obeying the laws of the state, to regard the police and the courts and jailers as agents of god, and thus acknowledging their power to imprison or/and execute “criminals” as ordained of god, doing god's will.
The presupposition of the materialist critiques, on the contrary, by coming into play when there is a sociopolitical schism that undermines the authority of priests and rulers, represent the new, rising class forces in challenging that authority, therefore the gods and their laws.
We will probe deeper into these issues in the following segments.
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