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The trouble with gods

Those fortunate enough to live in relatively secularized societies should not underestimate global power of religion.

Gods do exist, in a certain sense (I use the word “gods” as a gender-neutral term that includes goddesses). Humans create them in their own image, though without being aware of doing so. The fact that gods are male or female in itself strongly suggests that they are creatures of the human imagination. But they infest the mind as powerful, capricious and mysterious beings who demand endless worship and praise, reverence and obedience, devotion and propitiatory sacrifice. The gods in the head of the believer thwart the development of confidence, self-respect, rational enquiry and independent judgment.

In this way the idea of domination and submission is imprinted in the psyche as a model for relationships between beings. That model is then readily applied to social relationships – to the relationship between man and woman, master and slave, and so on. The Moroccan scholar Fatna A. Sabbah has shown how this works in the case of Islam in her brilliant (pseudonymous) study Woman in the Muslim Unconscious (Pergamon Press, 1984), but her analysis applies equally well to the psychology of “God-fearing” Jews and Christians.

The imaginary world of the divine, in turn, draws its inspiration from the real world of human power structures. God is “king of the universe”, the archangels and angels are his ministers and officials, and the devil has the job of running the Gulag.  

My argument is that it is above all these psychological effects, and not specific religious dogmas and practices, which make god worship a bulwark of class society. That, surely, from the socialist point of view is the main trouble with gods.

It may be objected that some religious beliefs do not seem compatible with the division of society into classes. An obvious example is the idea that “we are all equal in the eyes of God.” Beliefs of this kind have, indeed, inspired peasant uprisings. “When Adam dwelled and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” asked John Ball in the 14th century.

This objection is not completely groundless. Submission to gods does not always and automatically translate into submission to human masters. But surveying the broad sweep of history, I still think that accepting divine authority tends to predispose people to accept human authority as well.  

Another possible objection is that belief in gods predates class society. Primitive people already feared gods who embodied the uncontrollable forces of nature. People were in thrall to gods before they were in thrall to other people. And yet this made them especially vulnerable to oppression and exploitation when other conditions were in place for the transition from primitive communism to class society.

God-kings and priestly castes
Many of the earliest rulers made the most direct use of their subjects’ belief in gods by demanding that they themselves be worshipped as gods (the Roman emperors, for instance) or – more often – as descendants or earthly manifestations of gods. Egyptian pharaohs claimed descent from the creator sun-god Atum or Re. The Inca was descended from the sun god Inti, while the Aztec king represented the fire god Xiuhtecuhtli (Bruce Trigger, Understanding Early Civilizations). The Shinto belief that the Japanese emperor was descended from the sun goddess Amaterasu held sway right up to 1946, when Hirohito renounced divine status.

Some religions directly support the class structure by sanctifying the entire ruling class. The best-known case is the sanctification of the priestly Brahmin caste in Hinduism, although the Indian caste system no longer corresponds precisely to the class structure. Judaism also has its “pure” priestly caste – the cohanim, who trace descent from Moses’ brother Aaron.

Still mighty foes
By and large, however, the mechanisms through which religion supports class society (capitalism) are nowadays indirect. It is still risky to challenge the powers that be, but — except in a few countries like Iran — it no longer counts as sacrilege. The image of God has even started to mutate from that of the irate patriarch to that of the “sympathetic” social worker.   

And yet in large parts of the world religion still occupies a very important place in people’s hearts and minds. Those fortunate enough to live in relatively secularized societies should not underestimate its global power. The gods remain mighty foes of their deluded human creators.