In this ‘impediments’ series of blogs I have been looking at factors which I believe make us as a society unable to accept the ecological realities which we are faced with. All of these impediments so far have been current realities and at times it probably seemed as though I was arguing mostly against features of modernity.
However I now want to talk about something which has been part of the western psyche for a long time, namely Christianity. The title of the blog might lead readers to suppose that I am going enter into one of those Religion v Atheism debates which stigmatise one or the other side as the darkness and the other as the light. I am not, although I am more sympathetic to the atheism side I think these debates are pretty pointless because they focus too much on one set of beliefs (those concerning a higher power, supernaturalism &c). The fact is that one of humans’ key adaptations is a very powerful propensity to seek for causes amongst observed phenomena, and it is hardly surprising that most people throughout history have accepted the philosophical slippage from causes to Causes, or the First Cause, without too much soul-searching (pun intended).
However, this type of thinking is not confined to religion, the same thinking can be seen in any process that reifies a phenomenon, mental or social: people may believe in a God or gods, but they are also likely to believe in other reified entities such as the Tribe, the Nation, the Individual, Reason, Science, a particular political party, or even their favourite football team (of whatever code). They grant to these abstractions power and permanence that do not belong to them, and, as with religion, these adherences have consequences that range from the trivial to the serious and culpable. (These adherences can also have positive effects, it goes without saying—although I am less than impressed with sociological surveys which purport to show that religious people are happier than non-religious people, such surveys are hardly very rigorous in my view).
But it would be wrong to simply dismiss religion, (as though all religions we were one), as a quaint or even dangerous habit of humanity and at the same time ignore that fact that different versions of religion can have different effects. It would be my argument that the west, which is the cultural group which has lead and still leads the war on the environment that is modernity, was in some way pre-programmed to act in the way it did in modernity, once that alignment of technology and social changes had occurred, by the fact that it had been a Christian society for 1500 years before.
I believe that Christianity, by its original nature, sets up its adherents, taken as a population, to behave in characteristic ways. But to see why this is I’d like to go back to its origins.
The origins of Christianity are a very difficult area because so much is at stake. Militant atheists will view the question as trivial and deny there is any significance in the traditional texts that surround Christian origins. Christian scholars on the other hand either view these texts as gospel truth (ha ha), or take analyse them in a fashion that seems historical until you realise that this is not historical because it doesn’t try to break through to a better understanding of ‘what happened’, but tries, with varying degrees of sophistication, to preserve Christian-truth-in-history.
My analysis of these documents is without supernaturalism. If I read in the gospels that Jesus was crucified, died, was taken down from the cross and placed in a tomb and then rose from the dead and was seen by people again afterwards alive, then, if they do record actual historical events, the most likely explanation that lies behind them is that Jesus was crucified but was taken down from the cross before death and lay in a coma for three days, then revived, since people don’t normally die and come back to life, but occasionally do go into comas and then revive.
Of course, some people will deny that Jesus existed at all, or dispute his status in some other way. Robert Eisenam, for example, argues that Jesus was a minor figure in a family of Jewish revolutionary leaders of whom the most important was Jesus’s brother, James (‘the Just’), and that Christianity was simply an invention after the fact by the Roman political establishment to elide the historical memory of the Jewish nationalist movements that resulted in the major revolts of 66-70 CE and 132-135 CE and other uprisings.
These caveats aside, my own analysis of Christian origins is as follows*:
Jesus was a Jewish rabbi of the school of Hillel, who operated in the Galilee area and at some point was recruited by Jewish nationalists to lead a revolt against Roman rule.
This failed, Jesus was crucified by the Romans, but was taken down before death and survived, after this he probably went into exile outside the Roman empire. A group of Jewish people preserved Jesus’ teaching and called themselves his followers.
A few years after this, Paul of Tarsus, engaged by the collaborationist Temple establishment in Jerusalem as security officer, came across the story of Jesus and was immediately taken with it. He saw in it the possibility for a new religion especially suited to the community of business-people around the Mediterranean (of which he was a member) who had dealings with the Jewish business community and had drawn close to them, but who baulked at the final stage of conversion to Judaism, which involved male circumcision. Paul taught a new religion in which Jesus was figured as a Greek-style dying-and-reviving demigod, who had come signal a new religious dispensation in which the moral import of the Jewish scriptures could be followed without the ritual obligations.
Paul established various communities around the eastern Mediterranean but his career came to an end when he was executed by the Romans as part of their clamp down on any activities connected with Judaism in the early stages of the first Jewish revolt.
However, some of Paul’s communities survived, and other religious teachers continued his ‘cross-over’ religious teachings and towards the end of the C1 CE various documents which recorded Jesus teachings came into the hands of these communities from the Jewish followers of Jesus (now dying out) and were converted by them into writings which eventuated in the four canonical gospels.
I have run up against my self-imposed word-limit this week, but next week will talk about what I think the characteristics of this new religion, and how it affected the subsequent course of civilisation.
* It will be obvious that I am indebted to works by Robert Graves and Joshua Podro, Hugh Schonfield, Hyam Maccoby and others.
Next Week: Bad Religion 2