There seem to be two competing strands that make up contemporary religion. There is the compassionate Salvationist strand and the much older harsh dark religion which sees mankind as but a minor player in a cruel world, that is largely indifferent to man’s needs. The first began the flourish in the last centuries BCE beginning as early was the 5CE with the teaching of Buddha. As Christian I would see this trend culminating in Christ’s life in 1BCE. Others would see this compassionate religion of hope triumphing in the other Abrahamic religions of Judaism and Islam. However this religion of hope has always been in an unequal struggle with the older dark religion. From 1CE societies were dominated by religions in which these two strands intertwined to make up the common religion. Unfortunately the older dark religion has tended to prevail in this relationship, as that religion best suited the interests of the most powerful groups in society.
One of the oldest best known examples of the clash of the two religions is demonstrated in the trial of Socrates in 399 BCE. Historians have tended to dismiss the validity of the charge of impiety, as as a trumped up charge used as a means of silencing the foremost critic of Athenian democracy. However I would argue that the charge of impiety was justified. Socrates defence was that he did worship Apollo, but his Apollo was a different Apollo to the Apollo of the Athenian City State. There was the Apollo of the city of Athens, a God that celebrated the triumphs of Athens and protected her against her enemies. Opposing this was Socrate’s Apollo a moral God, the source of all that was good. These two Gods would have had very different attitudes to the Athenian attack on the island of Aegina and the subsequent enslavement of its population. The God of the Athenians would have celebrated the triumph of the city, but the God of Socrates would have regarded it as unjust. Socrates had to die as he was an enemy of the city. He was corrupting the youth, by teaching that the moral code than governed Athens was unjust. He was proposing an alternative morality. When it came to an exercise of power the old cruel religion must triumph.
There was a revolution in religious thinking in the latter centuries BCE. Siddhartha Gautama the founder of Buddhism taught his religious philosophy in the 5th century BCE and in the 2CE to 3CE, Hinduism was reformed, Krishna becomes the Supreme God in the Bhagavad Gita. Moral philosophy flourishes in Classical and Hellenistic Greece in this period. The imprint of Greek moral philosophy is found throughout Christianity from St John’s Gospel to the writings of the Christian Fathers such as Tertullian and Augustine. There were the numerous reform movements within Judaism, such as the Pharisees and Essenes at the same time. There must be some commonality to this religious flourishing in this period. That commonality must be the rise of an educated class that developed in the great trading cities. Cephas or St Peter is said to relocated to trading City of Tarsus from Jerusalem. What better place to preach a new religion. Is it no coincidence that both St. Paul and Mohammed the creators of two of the great Abrahamic religions were both traders, members of the new wealthy educated merchant class? This wealthy educated merchant class were the groups from which the prophets of the new religions sprang.
This new trading class that developed in the great cities of the Mediterranean and of the Middle East would not be satisfied with the crude simplistic religions of the past. They were educated and would not be satisfied with stories such as those which explained the seasons, in which Demeter (Goddess of Agriculture and the Harvest) who by returning to Hades every Autumn to be with her daughter in Hades caused the onset of winter and plants to cease their growth. Members of this class had through astronomy discovered the earth revolved round the sun and this caused the change in the seasons. They knew the earth was circular, so all mythical stories about Atlas holding up the earth they knew to be untrue. Old religions were the religion of the collective, the city or the state. Performing the rites of the old religion protected the state, but ignored the interests of the individual. These religions were devoid of any morality, Zeus demands Agamemnon (leader of the Greek army attacking Troy) that he sacrifice his daughter to him, before he will change the winds so the Greeks can sail on to Troy. Needless cruelty to mankind is inflicted on them by the Gods in all the stories of the Olympian Gods. This newly confident educated class demanded a better religion, one that met their aspirations, one that recognised the value of the individual life, not one that did not suggested that the supreme good was to sacrifice their lives for the collective.
Christianity was that religion it valued individual life, a virtuous life was rewarded with a heavenly after life. It was the religion of achievement, one that rewarded the good life. A religion that promised redemption from earthly suffering, the hope of a better life offered more to the individual than the old religions of the collective. It was the religion of change not social stasis. ‘The last would be first and the first last’. Inherited status and position meant little to this new religion, the aristocrat was no better than the slave.
It is forgotten that the barbarians who sacked Rome and conquered the Western Roman Empire were Christians. The Goths were no dark age people, but believers in the new religion of optimism. Within a brief time Christianity, the religion of hope had become the religion of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. A few centuries later a new religion of hope (Islam) replaced Christianity in much of the Middle East. A society dominated by a newly confident trading class needed a religion that expressed hope for the future, not the pessimistic religion of the old ruling classes. Who opposed change as it threatened their dominance of society.
What I find hard to understand is the disappearance of the religions of hope from the public consciousness in the present century. Ours is a scared age, the confidence of the past is lacking in our commercial and governing classes. Construction projects that our Victorian predecessors would have tackled with gusto are indefinitely postponed or passed on to more capable others. Our governing classes are like a beggar appealing for crumbs from the table of the international finance asking for their help to complete projects they lack the confidence to undertake. The Chinese are constructing new docks in the Thames basin, Dubai runs our ports and now David Cameron is begging the Chinese for their help in constructing HS2. A cynical view could be taken of the constant abasement of our leaders before significant others, notably the Chinese; when in fact it is their belief system that compels them to do so. They practise a religion of pessimism, which minimises the role of human agency. The world cannot be changed for the better, that for them is naive social engineering. The best that they can do is to appease the powerful market forces that shape our world, forces beyond their control. If to reduce unemployment means requiring workers to work for poverty level wages, that is better than going against the market by imposing high minimum wages, which they believe would only increase unemployment and poverty.
The newly acquired religion of pessimism suits a scared ruling class, who are fearful of any change that could threaten their wealth. Technological innovation can provide new sources of wealth and finance a new class who would replace them in the social pecking order. What they want is a policy of social stasis, an acceptance that things will remain as they are. If they can poison the public discourse with the religion of pessimism, they can indefinitely delay any threatening changes. This religion of pessimism dominates thinking within the governing and thinking classes. There is not one politician that promises more than a small amelioration of the cruelties of the current social system.
The belief in a malevolent world in which human beings are the mere plaything of market forces, is merely an updating of dark religions of pre-modern times in which humanity was the plaything of the Gods. Human sacrifice was seen as necessary to appease the Gods in Iron Age Britain. Now the market requires the sacrifice of the welfare state, and those social artefacts that make for the good life, for some imaginary better future. As imaginary as the Iron Age visions of the after life. There is a persistence in the practice of the dark religion by our rulers, they always resort to it in time of difficulty.
I realise that my understanding of religion is not the conventional one. I do not believe a religion requires a belief in supernatural beings. It is possible that there can be a secular religion that lacks belief in such beings. A religion can be defined as a non rational belief system that informs a person’s conduct. It is non rational in that its truths are self evident and not open to question.It is the unquestioned source of all truths. The secular religion of our governing classes is a curious mixture of Neo-Liberalism and Social Darwinism. Inconsistencies and contradictions within this belief system don’t matter, it’s an article of faith that is never questioned. Envy is both a virtue and a vice, a virtue when it motivates members of the right class to emulate their betters, but a vice if its the class envy of the lower orders.
Secular religion has as with other religions has a meta narrative which explains the world and the individual’s position in that world. People are both suppliers and consumers and it it their position in the seller consumer nexus that gives them their identity. A material cosmology in which individuals are understood in their relation to the market, as buyer or sellers. No other identity is of any consequence.
While lacking a supreme being who is the source of all truths; the secular religion does have the market which is the source of all truth. Believers in the market don’t have to demonstrate the superiority of free enterprise over state enterprise. Even if the East Coast Railway is making a profit (unlike the former private enterprise owners of this railway), believers know it will be better off in private hands. Evidence to the contrary is ignored, without being unfair it can be said that the free enterprise fantasy is preferred to hard truths of economic reality. It is at the opposite end of the continuum of fantasy beliefs that culminates in mass suicide cults such as ‘The Heaven’s Gate’. Both religions are destructive of the well being of humanity.
Perhaps one of the factors in the decline of the religion of hope, is that is it no longer fulfils a need for the governing political and commercial classes. They see a hostile world that is constantly threatening to deprive them of their status and wealth. What they cannot see is a bright future for them. In domestic society all the discriminations that helped assure them of their status are being swept away. Women and openly gay people now hold positions of power, the power of rich white hero-sexual men is under threat. Why else do Tory MPs resort to crude sexual gestures when female Labour MPs are speaking? Its a rear guard attempt to drive out women from the last remaining bastion of male power, the House of Commons. A failing economy and rapidly weakening military deny them influence abroad. The jibe about David Cameron’s failed sales trip to China; resulting in only an order for pigs semen has the echo of truth about it. This is why they cling so desperately to icons of past glory such as the Trident weapons system.
What this group needs is a religion of reassurance. This is why the rediscovery of the old dark religion is so important to them. It pictures a malevolent world that constantly threatens them and to meet these threats they need to be as brutal as the world that threatens them. As Boris Johnson so eloquently puts it, the intellectually defective 16% and the ‘socially ineffective’ have no place in this world. They should consider themselves lucky that they are allowed the means to survive. These people are no asset in the competitive struggle which the powerful titans of commerce and business wage against each other. Their poverty level wages are the price of their non success. When Nietzsche spoke of the superiority of the Teutonic ‘blond beast’ he was merely predating the stories Rand and Hayek tell of their capitalist successors. A religion of pessimism gives a failing but predatory capitalist caste their myth of superiority. It justifies any action they might take to cling on to their power.