Archive for the ‘Anthropology’ Category

Tariq Nasheed Corrects Alt-Right Fascist Lies about Black Civilisations

November 24, 2016

Yesterday I posted several pieces about Richard Spencer’s Nazi speech at the weekend, in which he celebrated Whites as a race of ‘strivers, explorers and conquerors’ whose civilisation and achievements keep improving. Spencer’s one of the founders and leaders of the Fascist Alt-Right, the Nazi nature of which was made chillingly explicit with the cries of ‘Hail Trump! Hail our race! Hail victory!’ with which he opened his vile little rant.

Spencer and his Nazi storm troopers, including another racist polemicist, Jared Tailor, claim that Blacks are inferior. Tariq Nasheed is a black blogger, who is clearly active attacking racism and pernicious claims against people of colour. In this video, he refutes Jared Taylor’s claims that Black people have invented nothing, and have a lower IQ than Whites. Taylor makes the claim that Blacks didn’t invent the wheel, and didn’t invent agriculture or domesticate animals. He also claims that Africans didn’t even have a calendar. This means that they are less intelligent than Whites. The White supremacists of the Alt-Right also maintain that Whites do not exploit Blacks and other ethnic minorities, and that they have benefited from contact with superior White civilisation.

Nasheed comprehensively trashes Taylor’s and his fellow Nazis’ claims that Blacks had no proper civilisation or achievements. He refuses to talk about the ancient Egyptian civilisation, which he feels strongly was Black, as this would be too easy. Instead, he talks about the lesser-known civilisations of West Africa. He mentions the work of Clyde Winters in documenting indigenous writing systems in the peoples of that part of Africa. Black people also very definitely had the wheel. Nasheed points to the rock pictures in the Sahara desert, which show Blacks driving chariots. The Black cultures in Africa also had agriculture and domesticated animals. They kept oxen, and their kings even had pet lions. As for buildings, they had houses and other structures that were two to three storeys tall. The Songhay empire had castles, and he rightly mentions, and ridicules, how the great fortress of Zimbabwe was so impressive, that its colonial discoverers tried to explain it as the work of space aliens. He also talks about the great university at Timbuktu, which was a centre of learning before Europe had universities. As for Black Africans lacking a calendar, he talks about how there is one monumental such device in Namibia.

He states that he’s offered to debate Taylor many times, but has never received an answer. His worry, however, is that now the Nazi Alt-Right have Donald Trump’s ear, Taylor, or an ignorant bigot like him, will get in charge of the educational system, and try to stop Black people learning about the achievements of their people in Africa.

Nasheed is also very much aware that many Whites also despise the Alt Right Fascists. He’s seen a group of White guys beat one of ’em up, and gives a shout out to Whites combating the Alt-Right.

I don’t condone unprovoked violence against the Nazis. They should have the same right not to be attacked as anybody else. But I’m well aware that they themselves are extremely violent, and have beaten and murdered people. I’m very aware that some people may have had to defend themselves, just as I’m also aware that their grotesque, vile opinions and racial insults may provoke others into violence against them, especially Blacks, Jews and others, who have been on the receiving end of their race hate and physical assault.

Nasheed is absolutely right about what he says, though I have some qualifications and additions to make. Black people certainly had the wheel. The rock paintings he mentioned are, I think, at Tassili N’Ajjer in the Sahara. They were painted when that part of the desert was green, many thousands of years ago. They show Whites from North Africa and Blacks from the south crossing and crisscrossing the desert, including people driving chariots. That said, convention historians believe that the wheel was probably invented somewhere in central Asia. So, not invented by Blacks, but arguably not invented by Whites either, or at least, not by Europeans. And yes, many Black nations and cultures certainly possessed agriculture, though again, the conventional explanation is that it spread to sub-Saharan Africa from ancient Egypt. As for the ancient Egyptians being a Black civilisation, they portrayed themselves as being lighter skinned than the peoples to their south, such as the Nubians, who are portrayed in ancient Egyptian papyri as being definitely Black. However, they were darker than their Greek and Roman conquerors. A few years ago New Scientist carried an article, which suggested that the seeds of ancient Egyptian civilisation was in a Black people from the south, whose religion centred around the worship of the cow. This was the ancestral version of Hathor, the Egyptian cow-goddess. These Black race migrated north, to what is now Egypt, as the Saharan desert dried out at the end of the last Ice Age, where they encountered and intermarried with White peoples.

The Songhay and Malinka peoples, who founded the great Muslim empire of Mali, were rich and powerful, and the university of Timbuktu was one of the major centres of Islamic learning and civilisation in West Africa. There have been documentaries exploring the priceless intellectual heritage preserved in the books from its library. Unfortunately, this has been threatened by Islamism. You may recall that a few years ago, Islamist barbarians allied to Daesh tried to set the university on fire in order to destroy its vast repository of the area’s indigenous Muslim culture. The Songhay did indeed have castles. They also had cavalry troops, who have been described in European textbooks as ‘knights of the Sahara’. And yes, in this part of Africa there are multi-storey buildings and extensive palaces. These are of mud brick, but then, so were ziggurats of ancient Babylon. The great Swahili civilisation of East Africa, however, built cities made from coral, which were coated with a lime wash made from burning the same substance. Their cities are as impressive and as richly carved as any others in Islam. The great fortress of Zimbabwe, which is also in east Africa, is also spectacular. It seemed such a contrast to the architecture of the indigenous peoples, who now live in wooden huts, that the Europeans who discovered it tried to explain it as the work of the Chinese, Arabs, or indeed, anyone other than indigenous Africans, including space aliens. In actual fact, its method of construction is very much the same type of building techniques as the mud huts of the local peoples. It seems it was built by the Razwe people, but then during some disruption in the 19th century, it was abandoned.

As for his statement that Black Africans didn’t have the calendar, he is most definitely, monumentally wrong. They definitely had the calendar, and from a very early period. There’s a piece of notched bone, found in a cave in South Africa by archaeologists, which appears to have been a counting device of some kind. The bone dates from 70,000 years ago, and it has been suggested that it may have been a portable calendar. This is about 40,000 years before modern men, Homo Sapiens Sapiens, moved out of Africa to colonise Europe. If it is true that this is a calendar, then clearly Taylor in this regard couldn’t possibly be more wrong.

Regarding Nasheed’s fears of the intellectual damage Alt-Right Fascism could do to the American educational system, I think Taylor and his squadristi will have severe problems if they true to impose a White supremacist curriculum at the universities. I think the liberal traditions of many American universities are simply too strong. No reputable historian, anthropologist or archaeologist specialising in researching African culture and heritage is going to stand for the denigration of African civilisation or the attack on their academic disciplines. I also anticipate considerable resistance from Black Studies professors and their students. And this is quite apart from professors, intellectuals and students, who wish to defend American academia as seats of genuine learning and liberal culture.

However, I recognise that there is a real danger that the Nazis will try to undermine this aspect of the American education system, either by depriving it of funding, or demanding that other courses be introduced to ‘balance’ it.

In my opinion, the real danger is much lower down the educational system, at school level. A little while ago one of the left-wing news shows I watch on YouTube reported that the state educational authority in Arizona decided that the existing school curriculum and its textbooks were too left-wing. I think they objected to them, because they didn’t just present American civilisation as absolutely wonderful, with no defects or shameful episodes. It taught students about slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, institutional racism and civil rights, as well as the other, better aspects of American history. So the right-wingers in power got rid of it.

What did they insist school students learn instead of the complexities, shame and achievements of American history? Ronald Reagan’s speeches.

I kid you not. Ronald Reagan’s speeches. Which weren’t even written by him. I think this should count as a crime against education. Mind you, I think the Tories over here would like to inflict something equally stupid and sinister on our youngsters. Remember when Michael Gove was ranting about children being taught the ‘Blackadder’ view of the Great War in history? He and his fellow Tories would like to do the same, presenting a sanitised version of British history consonant with turning our children into earnest Thatcherites. In fact, I’m surprised they aren’t demanding that school pupils aren’t learning her speeches, like the poor souls in Arizona’s classrooms.

The Alt-Right are a threat to Blacks and other people of colour, and a threat to genuine history and learning. They shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near power, or the young minds they want to poison and keep in ignorance.

Tomonews: ISIS Suicide Bomber Cries before Attack on Syrian Town

December 28, 2015

This is a grim little video from TomoNews, the news channel that produced such entertaining features as a computer-generated, rampaging Gordon Brown, and ISIS recruits kicking each other in the testicles in Pakistan, and ISIS and al-Qaeda scrapping and hitting each other like the Three Stooges in a competition over which one was the hardest and most brutal. This video is a grim little report showing a prospective suicide crying, and having to be comforted by his fellow murderers. He was apparently afraid his attack would fail. They tell him to have faith in Allah. So off he tries in his crawler, and blows himself up shortly after.

I’m reblogging this for several reasons. Firstly, it dispels the myth ISIS are trying to put out about themselves, that they are utterly unstoppable killers without any human feelings whatsoever. That’s what they’re saying to scare their enemies, which is now just about everybody else in the world. As this clip shows, they still feel fear, a fear that can reduce even the most determined butcher bent on his own destruction and those of others to tears.

That demonstration of a perfectly reasonable, human emotion, albeit perverted to serve ISIS’ ends – he was crying because he was afraid his mission would fail, rather than at the brutalities and horrors he and his loathsome comrades have already committed, also show something deeper: the artificiality and squalor of the terrorists’ suicide training itself.

The American anthropologist, Scott Atran, has pointed out that religious faith alone does not provide sufficient motivation for people to become suicide bombers. Instead, murderous groups like ISIS carefully cultivate and indoctrinate their prospective suicide bombers. Part of this involves separating them from the rest of the fighters, and developing a special group bond within them. It’s fair to say that they’re brainwashed into doing so.

And I’ve mentioned before the moral squalor of the authorities that carry out such brainwashing, whether in ISIS or not. I know Muslims from the Middle East, who despised Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, not least because of the way he encouraged young boys to serve as suicide bombers in the Iran/Iraq War in the 1980s. He handed out to them mass-produced, cheap keys, telling them that they were the keys to the kingdom of heaven. ISIS does pretty much something similar.

And remember what Owen Jones said in the video I reblogged yesterday about the Paris attacks. The people drawn to ISIS aren’t paragons of virtue. They’re a bunch of sad acts and losers, thieves and criminals. Many of them have also suffered from depression, which shows that ISIS also exploits the mentally vulnerable.

The more you see ISIS, the less invincible and impressive they seem. At their core, they’re just pathetic bullies, trying to scare their world with their brutalities into believing their something greater than they are.

ISIS Troops Drugged Up to Fight

November 18, 2015

I found a piece on the atheist news show, Secular Talk, on Youtube discussing a report by one of the mainstream news channels/ programmes claiming that rather than being the fearless ghazis for Islam they claim to be, ISIS’ warriors are so wracked with fear that their leaders have to keep ’em drugged to get them to fight. The claim comes from an interview with a fighter for Hisbollah, the militant Lebanese paramilitary organisation. The fighter claimed that in battles with them, the ISIS fighters all turned tail and ran away. When Hisbollah took one of their bases, they found stacks of boxes of amphetamines. They believed that ISIS had put their fighters on the drug in order to keep them fighting.

So much for the great warriors of the ‘Islamic State’.

Now there are good reasons to treat this report with a pinch of salt. Hizbollah are, like ISIS, a militant Islamic organisation. They too have engaged in bombings and terrorist outrages. Private Eye has published several pieces critical of their non-Muslim supporters in the West, repeating a statement from the self-declared ‘Party of God’ which ran ‘We don’t want anything from you. We just want to kill you.’ An anthropological study of Hizbollah from its origins in the 1980s pointed out that the organisation was claiming to have changed and become more moderate, though the book remained somewhat sceptical of this.

Hisbollah are, in sharp contrast to ISIS, Shi’ah. It has its basis in a Socialist Lebanese Shi’ite party that was infiltrated by religious militants. ISIS are fanatically intolerant Sunnis, who have followed al-Qaeda in murdering and brutalising the Shi’ah population of Iraq. Hizbollah has also used propaganda to promote its aims, and has every reason to try and make ISIS as its opponent look as weak as possible in order to encourage and strengthen its supporters.

On the other hand, that does mean they’re wrong.

Combat stress was known centuries before psychiatrists recognised ‘shell-shock’ amongst the traumatised soldiers of World War I. Paddy Griffiths, a senior lecturer in War Studies at Sandhurst, states that the Vikings recognised it, and called it ‘Battle Foot’ in his book, The Viking Art of War. For all the dark, violent aspect of human nature, some anthropologists believe that killing does not come easily to humans. If you saw the film, The Men Who Stare at Goats, you’ll recall the scene where the mad, New Age major at the heart of the American Army’s secret psychic weaponry programme tells Ewan MacGregor’s character that in the First World War, 80 per cent of the shots initially fired at the enemy were deliberately aimed wide. The same when it came to some of the some conscripts fighting in the Vietnam War. The Men Who Stare At Goats was based on Jon Ronson’s Channel 4 documentary series, Crazy Rulers of the World, in which he went looking for the real psychic warriors in the American army, led by General Stebblebine. And like the mad officer in the movie, Stebblebine really did walk into walls, believing that one day he would be able to pass through them through the sheer power of his mind. The stats about the deliberate inaccuracy of soldiers fighting in World War One and Vietnam are true, however, if only during the initial phases of the conflict before the army realised that they had to train soldiers to kill, rather than just point their guns. The Israeli author, Amos Oz, in an TV interview back in the 1990s, recalled his experiences fighting in the Golan Heights during the Six Day War. He stated that he found the whole situation so difficult to believe and understand, that his initial reaction was to wonder why no-one had called the cops, as the situation was so far beyond his experience.

My guess is that civilised people, regardless of their race or religious beliefs or lack thereof, find killing extremely difficult. Hence all the effort terrorist organisations like ISIS and the paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, and violent, genocidal states like Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany, put in to demonising their enemies.

And nations have frequently resorted to trying to help their troops keep going through exhaustion and the heavy stress of fighting by using chemical enhancement. The Nazi war machine was extremely efficient, but they used an amphetamine-derivative to keep their troops fighting. The stuff has since re-emerged, to plague deprived American communities as ‘Nazi Crank’.

Another type of recreational drug blighting the lives of the underclass is ‘Black Bombers’. This is again based partly on amphetamines. A friend of mine told me it was developed by the US army to keep their pilots flying bombing missions during the Vietnam War.

And this is the Nazi and US military machines, which were well-funded, trained and professional. And if they had to use drugs to prop up their troopers, it’s not even remotely incredible that ISIS are doing the same to their volunteers.

And the mass of ISIS fighters probably aren’t very good soldiers. A little while ago I found another report from The Young Turks news show commenting on a propaganda video released by ISIS promoting their version of the US’ Navy SEALS. ISIS was showing their version on manoeuvres, loudly proclaiming that they would be swift, efficient killers who would put fear into their enemies.

The result from professional Western soldiers and military analysts was somewhat different. Okay, it was the complete opposite. According to the Turks, it raised laughter and chuckles, rather than heart-pounding terror. The Western military authorities watching it couldn’t believe how bad their fighters were. They even made basic mistakes in the way they held their guns. And these were supposed to be the organisation’s elite killers, the ‘best of the best of the best’.

So, given the caveats above, I’m quite prepared to believe Hisbollah when they say that the ISIS troops they fought ran, and were so bad as soldiers that they needed to take Speed to give them courage.

If it was almost any other army or soldiers, I’d have some sympathy. As I said, for most civilised people all over the world, killing is extremely difficult. I realise that people fight in pubs and nightclubs, or in teenage gang battles, but this usually stops short of the knife or gun or whatever. Quite often before the fight breaks out, somebody jumps in, shouting, ‘Leave it out! It’s not worth it!’ or some such. Or the rozzers arrive to break it up and start giving people rides in the party van.

In the case of ISIS, I have absolutely no sympathy at all. This is the organisation that has butchered and enslaved its way across the Middle East, whose members boasted about how brutal and bloodthirsty they were. The brigade, whose on-line propaganda encouraged some of the jihadi brides to run away from Britain to marry them, bragged that they ‘delighted in carnage’.

Well, long ago a certain Bill Shakespeare, of the Midlands, had this to say about the difference between tough, martial masculinity and loss of humanity, in one of his plays. In the Scottish Play, MacBeth is being urged on by his wife to murder his way to the top to fulfil his destiny, as prophesied by the three witches. He’s initially reluctant, saying ‘Peace, woman, peace; I do all there is to become a man. Who dares do more is none.’
It’s a wise line, which shows you why people are still performing the Bard’s plays after four hundred years. It is, tragically, a lesson in masculinity that thugs and butchers like ISIS haven’t learned, and aren’t interested in learning.

And so I have no sympathy at all. They’re monsters, drugging the mass of their troops up to disguise how weak they really are, while at the same time boasting of atrocities that even the Nazis tried to conceal in case it brought shame on them.

Women’s Lack of Freedom in ISIS

March 23, 2015

In this video, The Young Turks comment on the unofficial manifesto for women under ISIS issued by the all-female Al-Kansa brigade. Although women do fight in the Islamic state, they are only supposed to do so when there is a lack of available men. The role envisaged for women is extremely limited and strictly traditional. The manifesto declares that they should be married by nine years of age. Men should be married by twenty. They also, according to ISIS, should confine themselves to the home – the manifesto even describes it as ‘the cell of the home’. They are only to be allowed to leave the house in order to fight for the jihad, study religion, or to serve as doctors and nurses.

ISIS claims that despite these restrictions on women’s freedom, they do not stand for ‘illiteracy, ignorance or backwardness’. They do allow science to be studied, but it’s the basics only. So, as The Young Turks say, they do stand for ‘ignorance and backwardness’.

An increasingly restrictive attitude towards women has been a feature of the modern Islamic revival. In some very traditional Middle Eastern societies, women are not allowed out of the house except in the company of a close male relative. This is essentially the situation envisaged by ISIS in the manifesto issued by the al-Kansa brigade. Ethnographers researching contemporary Middle Eastern cultures have also observed and described the increasing lack of freedom granted to women. Lila Abu-Lughod, an associate professor of Anthropology at New York University, lived with a Bedouin matriarch, Migdim, between 1978 and 1980 for her research on the traditional nomadic tribes of Egypt and the changes their society was undergoing as Egypt modernised. This Bedouin lady was scandalised by the apparent lack of modesty of modern women. She and the other Bedouin women also complained of the lack of freedom they were given by their menfolk, and what they saw as the decline in the proper celebration of Arabic weddings. In traditional Bedouin society these lasted for a week, and the sexes weren’t segregated. Lila Abu-Lughod writes

When she [Migdim] gets together with other women, she often rails against the younger men of the community for being so strict about the movements and behaviour of their young sisters, cousins, and wives. “The boys are terrible now,” she began one such conversation. Her daughter agreed. “The boys are terrible. I swear by my father we have one son who’s black in word and deed. And he’s so young.” A visitor added, “Why, when we were yhoung, remember, we used to go off to herd the goats on our own. Not any more!” Migdim’s daughter continued, “Yes, that’s how things were, may God have mercy on past generations. They weren’t like this new generation … The men now are awful.”….

Yet the world she remembers is one in which behaviour that would now be considered scandalous was perfectly accepted. For example, Migdim things wedding celebrations have lost their appeal. She tells her newest daughter-in-law that they used to celebrate weddings for a week with evenings of singing and dancing. “Weddings now are like a shrunken old man,” she comments. At weddings in the past, young women, including her husband’s sisters and nieces, had danced veiled, in front of semi-circles of young men who serenaded them. Young men and women had always exchanged love songs at these weddings: “Stuff that couldn’t happen now!” they agree, thinking of the sex-segregated affairs that weddings have become since they settled into houses.

Lila Abu-Lughod, ‘Migdim: Egyptian Bedouin Matriarch’, in Edmund Burke III, ed. Struggle and Survival in the Modern Middle East (London: I.B. Tauris 1993) 271-289 (284,285).

There have been cases of western women, who married Muslim and went with them to live in their country. They then found themselves subject to the same traditional restrictions as virtually prisoners in their own homes. The three British Muslim girls, who ran away from their homes to become Jihadi brides for ISIS clearly enjoyed a great deal of personal freedom in this country. Their parents seem to have allowed them to spent a lot of time away from them, including travelling unaccompanied to London, trusting in their own common sense to ensure their safety.

It was unfortunately misplaced. And it’s also clear that, no matter what the girls thought awaited them when they joined ISIS, they’re going to get a real shock when they find that freedom of movement taken away.

Huff Post on Kipper Throwing Strop at Bristol Uni on Any Questions

March 1, 2015

Radio 4’s political debate programme, Any Questions on Friday was at Bristol Uni. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s the radio equivalent of BBC 1’s Question Time. A different panel of politicians appear at various locations up and down the country each week, and are asked questions by the audience. On the panel this last week was David Coburn, a UKIP MEP. Coburn’s odd in that he’s openly gay, yet opposes same-sex marriage. He’s accused its supporters as ‘equality Nazis’. Which is weird, considering that the Nazis most certainly did not favour equality, and were very firmly against male homosexuality. During the Third Reich gay men were sent to the concentration camps, and identified with a pink triangle on their camp uniform. It’s quite bizarre, considering that in the bio that was sent to the audience, he described himself as ‘a big, screaming poof’.

The Huffington Post’s article, Ukip MEP David Coburn Got Slow Hand-Clapped So Called BBC Audience Names, reports how the students were definitely not impressed by Coburn’s remarks about immigrants pricing British people out of the housing market. So they started to give him the slow handclap. This enraged Coburn, and he started ranting about how the audience was ‘Green’ and full of ‘Lib Dems’. The article begins

Ukip MEP David Coburn appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions programme on Friday evening. He got slow hand-clapped by members of the audience. So he called them names.

Coburn got into a fight with the audience at Bristol University during a discussion about housing. “How would we know how many houses we need? Because we don’t know how many people are coming into the country,” he said, having dismissed the “wind” from Labour’s shadow housing minister Emma Reynolds.

Coburn, Ukip’s MEP from Scotland, said Britain should leave the EU in order to be able to properly understand how many houses needed to be built. Members of the audience then started to loudly slow handclap the MEP.

“This is a blatantly Green [Party] audience,” Coburn shot back, as host Jonathan Dimbleby tried to keep things calm. “Many of these people sitting around here, all very nice bourgeois Greens and whatever and so on and so forth, what about the working man? How can he afford a house if he is competing with open door immigration?”

The article’s at There’s an audio file with it, so you can hear this broadcasting train wreck for yourself.

Now I don’t know how many people in the audience were Green party members or Lib Dems. I’m sure there were a number, but probably far less than Coburn believes. The Lib Dems have lost a lot of student support, and created a great deal of hostility for themselves on campuses up and down the country through raising tuition fees. I’ve been at conferences on medieval history, where speakers have compared Nick Clegg with some of the Middle Ages most notorious liars and slippery customers. It’s one of the reasons why I believe that Labour’s plan to cut tuition fees from £9,000 down to £6,000 should be a vote-winner.

The party political allegiances of the students there probably wasn’t the only reason they showed their disapproval so audibly. There’s now a global market in education, and people come to British universities from all over the world. And increasingly vice-versa. Brits are now also choosing to study in America, and also at continental universities, such as Paris and Brussels. Many members of the academic staff are also foreign. Among the lecturers at the archaeology and anthropology department at Bristol, for example, were academics from across Europe – Greece, Germany and Portugal. There were also visiting speakers, who gave seminars and lectures to the Arch-Anth Soc (Archaeology and Anthropology Society) from across the world. The students were no less diverse, coming from places like Greece, America, Canada, India and Thailand. This is part of what makes going to uni such an enriching experience. Quite apart from the purely academic study, you get to meet and mix with people from different, often vastly different backgrounds and cultures.

And your own understanding of the world, its immense problems and vast opportunities, is broadened.

With so many in the audience either foreign, or the friends and fellow students of people from outside the UK, it really isn’t surprising that the audience disliked Coburn’s comments so strongly. They are simply narrow and xenophobic. And many of the foreign students are going to find them particularly hollow, as the fees for them were much higher than those for domestic students. They were, however, living in the same halls of residence, and the same types of student accommodation. So they probably didn’t feel that they were pushing house prices up.

Quite apart from the experiences of foreign students and their circumstances, Coburn’s attempt to link it to immigration from the EU, or anywhere else, is quite wrong. There have been cases recorded in the right-wing press, like the Daily Mail, where large numbers of immigrants have placed a strain on available stocks of council housing. However, the root cause of the lack of affordable housing is because the incomes of the very rich have increased far beyond those of the working and lower middle class, regardless of ethnicity or immigrant status. Not enough houses have been built, and since Thatcher the government has been trying to get rid of council housing. In fact Thatcher expressly forbade any more from being built. As for affordable housing, for many people this is a grim joke. The rents for affordable homes are pegged at 80 per cent of the market rate, which for many people in London still means that they will be unable to afford them. The rich, through their immense wealth, push up property prices, beyond the ability of the lower income groups to rent or purchase.

And if immigrants from the continent really were pushing us all out of house and home through their sheer numbers and obscene wealth, why is it then that, according to the stats Johnny Void has put on his blog, 34 per cent of rough sleepers in London are foreign?

The only areas of which I can think, where Coburn’s comments about immigrants pushing up property prices might be true, is in the very affluent parts of London, like Kensington and Knightsbridge, where luxury apartment have been built aimed at the global super-rich, such as the Chinese, or bought up by Russian oligarchs. Now the last time I looked, China and Russia were not part of the EU.

Coburn was given the slow hand-clap by Bristol Uni’s students, not just because some of them were left-wing, though that was probably also part of it. But also because they knew from their own experience at Uni that Coburn was talking dangerous, xenophobic nonsense. And they reacted accordingly.

New York, 1975, Margaret Thatcher and the Coalition’s Britain: Same Script, Different Actors

January 19, 2014

I’ve started reading Anthony Marcus’ Where Have All the Homeless Gone: The Making and Unmaking of a Crisis (New York: Berghahn 2006). Marcus is an anthropologist who did his Ph.D. research from 1989 to 1994, first examining the causes of the 1988 riots in Tompkins Square Park, and then as a staff ethnographer on a social work project intended to improve the chances of the mentally ill being able to get into and retain housing. Marcus’ informants were a group of fifty-five Black men, none of whom saw themselves as homeless. The book is an examination of the reasons why homelessness was a major issue in the decade from 1983 to 1993, but then suddenly dropped out of American consciousness. From being one of the most discussed and important political issues, it has vanished and become almost invisible, despite the fact that the numbers of the homeless are still rising. Marcus makes a number of fascinating and observations in his book the situation and perception of the homeless in New York. He makes it very clear that Reaganite economics is behind much of the poverty, and particularly blames ‘American Thatcherism’ for its rise. The book is mainly about the failure of the Democrats’ campaigns to end homelessness, however.

One of the important points Marcus makes is that much of the failure to tackle homelessness in US is due to the ethnographic construction of the homeless. Marcus describes how, when he was doing his research, he became increasingly confused about who ‘the homeless’ actually were. Did it include people, who only slept on the streets for a few nights a week, but at other times were in shelters, or slept at girlfriends’? What about the people, who were given space in a storage area, like a cupboard, basement or upper landing in a building for a janitor, in return for which they worked off the books cleaning or performing other jobs. Furthermore, many of the men he studied, like their White counterparts, could be described as ‘bohemian’ rather than conform to the traditional image of homelessness. These were men from middle class backgrounds, sometimes college educated, who viewed homelessness as merely a transient phase before getting themselves off the streets and into permanent, fixed accommodation. One man described himself as a poet. He notes that quite a few of the homeless in New York were college and university graduates, who were left homeless after leaving uni, and who were forced to move around, sleeping at friends’. Get ready, Britain! This is your future! With the rise in tuition fees, and many graduates now forced to find work at lower paid, menial jobs, for which they are overqualified, such as stacking shelves at Tesco or serving in McDonalds, I have absolutely no doubt that this will come to Britain soon, if it already hasn’t done so.

What struck me most of all was the similarity between the comprehensive destruction of New York’s advanced welfare system after the City Went bankrupt in 1975, and the situation in modern Britain. Here, like New York nearly forty years ago, the Coalition is demanding the destruction of our remaining welfare state under the guise of combatting the nation’s debt.

New York City suffered an acute fiscal crisis in the 1970s, which culminated in the City defaulting on its loans in 1975. The then president, Republican Gerald Ford, declared that he would veto any bill intended to bail it out. The government then placed New York City under the control of the Municipal Assistance Corporation in exchange for granting it the right to issue bonds to pay off its debt. The Municipal Assistance Corporation was a consortium of bankers and businessmen given the task making sure the City stayed solvent. Marcus then describes the consequences of this decision:

‘Their version of making the city financially solvent involved the beginnings of a larger ideological project that would sweep the United States, the United Kingdom, and much of the world during the 1980s. The New York City welfare state that provided free tertiary education, a comprehensive public health system, a version of the “dole”, and many other social programs that had brought New York City derogatory nicknames like Moscow on the Hudson and the Soviet Republic of New York City would be no more. As the US Secretary of Treasury, William Simon, testified in October of 1975 about the federal aid program that had been offered to New York City to address its fiscal crisis, it should be “so punitive, the overall experience made so painful, that no city, no political subdivision would ever be tempted to go down the same road”. Tens of thousands of layoffs, scores of thousands of job eliminated through “attrition” in the public sector, often disastrous reductions in health, firefighting, policing, education, and social services, and a tremendous breakdown in public morale followed. …. There is hardly a New Yorker who lived in the city at this time who does not have some memory of a family member thrown out of work, a favourite teacher in high school saying goodbye to his or her class, or some kind of deterioration in city living.’ (p. 37).

This had a disastrous effect on the lives of Marcus’ informants:

‘Many of my informants traced the origins of homelessness to the New York City financial crisis of 1975. They were from families that had depended on the vast New York City welfare state for everything from education and housing to jobs, summer recreation programs, and health care. Even informants who had been young children during the dark days of 1975 could remember adults around them panicking as mass layoffs and budget cuts changed their lives and forced them to scale back their expectations. I had informants who had grown up in New York City who remembered their first experiences of housing loss after a parent was laid of 1975. They talked about going from being “middle class black folk” to being poor. For most of them it meant a brief period in a welfare hotel followed by a move to a poorer, more marginal neighbourhood. Sometimes it merely meant moving to a smaller apartment and sharing a bedroom with younger siblings.’

Elsewhere Marcus described how this led to a massive decline in the quality of housing as whole neighbourhoods were left to become derelict, and the transformation of these areas during the boom in the late 80s and early 1990s when these areas became gentrified. This was the period when New York City’s economy and workforce went from being working class, blue collar manufacturing and industrial, to white collar, based on the financial and IT sectors.

The parallels to the British experience are strong and obvious. Margaret Thatcher, when she was in office, used the financial crisis the country had experienced under Labour as a pretext for a wholesale attack on the British welfare state. Now, 39 years later, Cameron, Clegg and the Coalition are doing the same. They have, however, much less excuse for doing so, as despite their rhetoric the crisis is not the result of overspending by Labour, and the debt is actually much lower than it has been for 200 of the last 250 years. This has not forced the Tories and their Lib-Dem satellites changing their tune, however. It’s exactly the same script, but with different actors.

Or if you want to put it crudely, ‘same sh*t, different +++holes’.

Tory Councillor Told To Resign after Criticising David Attenborough – But Attenborough Does Believe in Doing Nothing for the Starving

September 19, 2013

Late yesterday evening there was a story on the MSN News about Phil Taylor, a Conservative councillor in Ealing, who had been told to resign for his comments on Twitter about David Attenborough. According to the article, Taylor had been angered by a statement by Attenborough on the need to curb the growth of the world’s population. He tweeted ‘I do wish this silly old fart would practice what he preached and take a one-way trip to Switzerland’. The leader of the Labour Party in Ealing Council, Julian Bell, condemned Taylor’s comments, and demanded that he should either apologise or resign. Taylor was also criticised by Scott Freeman, from the anti-bullying charity, Cybersmile, for setting a bad example and encouraging cyberbullying.

In reply to these criticisms, Taylor said in an email “My tweet reflected my frustration with Attenborough repeatedly using his ‘national treasure’ status to promote a set of views that see people as being a problem. His prescriptions seem always to apply to other people.

“My view of the world is that we have to work out how to make sure that the 9 billion people who will populate the world by 2050 all have a good life. They all have hopes and dreams and don’t need to be told what to do by Attenborough.”

The article concludes with the simple statement that ‘Sir David said in a radio interview this morning that he recognised that population controls were a controversial area and emphasised that he felt more strongly towards a human baby than any animal.

However, it is important to have a debate over what we do about the rising pressures on natural resources, he said.’

The full article can be read at:

Right-Wing Opposition to Green Politics

Now the Right does not like Green politics. In America Green politics are criticised as a Left-wing strategy for increasing taxation, regulation and enforcing income redistribution. The last means Republicans don’t like it because the Greens want to take money from the rich and give to the poor. Conservatives in America and Britain believe that Big Business has an absolute right to exploit, pollute and destroy the environment and its flora and fauna. In response to pressure from Green politicians and environmental groups, they have set up astroturf organisations, like ‘Wise Use’ to counter such criticism and present Conservatives as advocating instead a responsible approach to the environment in line with a policy promoting the proper exploitation of the natural world.

Attenborough: UN Should Not Give Food to Famine Victims

Now the suggestion that Attenborough should go and end his life in a Dignitas clinic is extreme, and it does set a bad example when so many children have ended their lives through abuse on the Internet. Taylor’s comment is not, however, quite as bad when you read what Attenborough himself had said. This is truly monstrous. According to the Daily Telegraph, Attenborough told their interviewer about his fears about overpopulation and appeared to suggest that the starving of the developing world should be left to die. The great broadcaster apparently said:
“What are all these famines in Ethiopia, what are they about? They’re about too many people for too little land. That’s what it’s about. And we are blinding ourselves. We say, get the United Nations to send them bags of flour. That’s barmy.” According to the article, he stated that overpopulation was a problem, and that if we didn’t tackle it, nature itself would, as it had done for a long time in the past. He also believed that the major obstacles to managing the world’s population was the attitude that having children was a human right, and the Roman Catholic Church’s prohibition on contraception. He also acknowledge that his statement about Ethiopia and its starving could be ‘misconstrued as an attack on poor people as the issues of major concern were in Africa and Asia.

The article about his comments can be read here:

India Starvation Photo

The victims of a famine in India. David Attenborough doesn’t want the UN to give food to people like these.

Attenborough and Atheist Attacks on Religion and Christianity

Now Attenborough has shown himself with these comments to be monstrously ignorant and callously indifferent to global suffering. I have been extremely unimpressed with Attenborough for several years now, ever since he added his voice to that of Richard Dawkins in sneering at religion. That’s a different issue, but I found his remarks then ignorant and uninformed, as countless people of faith, and particularly Western Christians, did contribute to the rise of science. For a more complete discussion of how Christianity laid the basis for modern science, see R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press 1971). I was also not impressed by his attitude, which suggested that Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection had somehow disproven the existence of God. I’ve blogged several times on this issue. For a proper discussion of this issue, see Own Chadwick, ‘Evolution and the Churches’ in G.A. Russell, ed., Science and Religious Belief: A Selection of Recent Historical Studies (London: The Open University/ University of London Press 1973)282-93. These are separate issues. Attenborough’s comments here also seem woefully ignorant and misinformed.

Traditional Attitudes towards Large Families in Western History and Modern Developing World

Let’s take his comment about the Roman Catholic church’s stance on contraception being part of the problem. In actual fact, many cultures and religion advocate large families. In tradition Moroccan society, a family with fewer than 12 children was described as ‘unfinished’. The pagan religions in Africa also lay great stress of large families and the fertility of their flocks and herds. As for attitudes to the environment and animal life, Nigel Barley in his account of his fieldwork amongst the Dowayo people of Cameroun, The Innocent Anthropologist, noted that they had very little knowledge of the animal life around them, and were quite prepared to exterminate any creature they disliked, such as lions. He states that family planning is so unpopular that there is a joke that the only thing that will not be opened and misappropriated when you send it through the post in West Africa is a packed of condoms.

He also does not seem to know, or understand the reasons why the developing world, and indeed Britain and the West before the twentieth century, had large families. These were massive infant mortality rates and to provide support for the parents in their old age. Barley himself says that one of the most moving demonstrations of the tragically high rate of death in childhood in Africa is a question in the Nigerian census form. This asks you how many children you have. After this is the question ‘How many are still living?’ In traditional societies, such as Britain before the establishment of the welfare state in 1948, there is no or little state provision for citizens in their old age. People therefore have large families in order to support them when they have become too elderly to manage for themselves.

Pakistan Contraception Photo

Women in Pakistan receiving contraceptive advice.

Fall in Birth Rate throughout the World

Attenborough also seems to have ignored the fact that globally, birth rates are dropping. Governments throughout the developing world have launched campaigns to control their populations through family planning and contraception. This includes the developing world. The French anthropologist, Richard Tod, has pointed to the fact that, although families in the developing world may be much larger than in the West, there has been a dramatic decline. In some Middle Eastern nations, such as those of the former Soviet central Asian republics like Azerbaijan, for example, the birth rates are comparable to those of Western Europe. In Britain and much of the developed world, including Germany, Italy, Russia and Japan, the birth rate is actually below replacement levels. The population in Britain has grown only because of immigration. The Japanese are so concerned about their demographic decline that Japanese newspapers have run stories predicting that in a thousand years’ time, the Japanese people will be extinct. One of the reasons why the Land of the Rising Sun is putting so much resources into developing robots is to create a suitable workforce. The Japanese are unwilling to permit mass immigration to provide the country with labour, and so have turned to cybernetics and robots instead. In fact the global decline in the birth rate has alarmed some demographers, anthropologists and economic planner. In mid-1990s New Scientist carried an interview with a scientist, who believed that population growth had peaked or was peaking. He believed that by the middle of this century there would be a population crash. The result would be increased strain on the welfare state due to the cost of caring for an aging population. The economy would also contract, and countries would have to compete with each other to attract migrants to join their nations’ workforce. He also believed that the high mortality rates in some African nations coupled with a low birth rate would cause their populations to shrink. He believed that the first nation that could be so affected would be Ethiopia. We are here looking very much at the kind of dystopian future predicted by the film Children of Men. This portrayed a Fascistic future Britain, in which no children had been born for 18 years.

Racist Fears over Campaigns to Limit Population

Attenborough’s comments here also threaten to increase racial tension and spur on the rise of the racist Right. IN Britain and America the Fascist and Nationalist Right see demands by the ruling elite that we should limit the size of our families as part of a policy of racial extermination directed at the indigenous White population. They believe that there is a deliberate policy by the liberal elite of wiping out Whites, and replacing them with Black and Asian immigrants. Attenborough’s comments will be seen by them as another example of this policy. Black Nationalists may also see it as a racially motivated attempt to exterminate them. Private Eye a few years ago reported the outrageous comments by a Black leader in South Africa, telling people not to use contraception to stop AIDS as this was really another racist attempts by Whites to limit the Black population. Such statements have some verisimilitude due to the fact that BOSS, the South African secret service, had at one time been active trying to develop diseases that would specifically target Blacks. Attenborough might fear that his comments may be ‘misconstrued’ as an attack on the poor of Africa and Asia, but given the highly mixed legacy of European colonial administrations, one cannot reasonable blame them for doing so. About ten or so years ago a history book came out. It was entitled ‘Third World Holocausts’, or something like that. I can’t remember the exact title. I do, however, remember what it was about. The book described the way European colonialists had committed terrible atrocities in their African and Asian possessions from the political and economic ideologies of the time. In the 19th century, for example, there was a terrible famine in one of the Indian states. I believe it was Bengal, during which millions starved to death. The Raj refused to import and distribute food to its victims from the belief that this would undermine the principle of free trade they were trying to adopt across the Empire.

Attenborough’s Comments and the Irish Potato Famine

Irish Famine Photo

Irish victims of the Potato Famine queuing to emigrate.

Much closer to home, Attenborough’s comments recall the attitude of British politicians and civil servants during the Irish Potato Famine. The head of the British civil service, Trevelyan, stated that the victims of the famine should be left to starve. It was, he stated, their fault due to their improvident and irresponsible lifestyle. The result was the legacy of bitterness and hatred which further fuelled Nationalist demands for home rule under Charles Stuart Parnell and violent revolution from the Fenian Brotherhood and later Irish Republican groups. Attitudes like Attenborough’s have partly contributed, however, remotely, to the rise and persistence of terror groups like the IRA.

Fascism and the Green Movement

Attenborough’s views are also similar to some other, viciously misanthropic, extreme Right-wing views found in certain sections of the Green movement. In the 1990s one of the anarchist groups became alarmed at the Fascist tendencies then entering the Green movement. Murray Bookchin, a leading anarchist intellectual, who advocates Green, post-scarcity Anarchism, walked out of a Green conference in Germany when one of the speakers, a former East German dissident, declared that they needed a ‘Green Adolf’. Private Eye, in ‘Ape Sh*t’, its May 1988 review of Brian Masters biography of John Aspinall, The Passion of John Aspinall, remarked on the thuggishness of Aspinall’s political opinions. Aspinall has stated that humans are ‘vermin’, and stated that he favours a policy of ‘beneficial genocide’. He believes Britain’s population should be reduced from 54 to 18 million. He also has explicitly Fascist political sympathies. He supports ‘a right-wing counter-revolution, Franco-esque in spirit and determination’. See Francis Wheen, ed., Lord Gnome’s Literary Companion (London: Verso 1994) 226-7 (p,. 226).

Now I don’t think Attenborough is a Nazi. He has not advocated a Fascist dictatorship nor has any racist views. Indeed, quite the opposite. His programme, Man Alive, in the 1970s brought anthropology to British television and he was always polite and courteous to the primal peoples he spoke to and whose lives he explored. It’s a pity that this respect has not been extended to their children or grandchildren forty years later. Attenborough himself has been responsible for some of the very best of British television. He has delighted and educated the British public with his programmes on animals and wildlife for about sixty years. The BBC’s Natural History Unit in Bristol has brought from fame and honour to the city for its achievements in wildlife broadcasting. When he was controller of BBC 2, he was responsible for bringing some of the most innovative ideas to British television. Who now remembers Brass Tacks, a programme which allowed members of the public to talk about their political views? Unfortunately, Attenborough’s views in this instance less resemble those of an enlightened, genuinely liberal educator, but that of a loudmouthed bigot.

Attenborough’s Comments and the Macc Lads

Attenborough’s view in this instance resemble those of the Macc Lads. This was a northern punk band, which specialised in deliberately offensive lyrics. These could reasonably be described as misogynist, homophobic, and racist. I don’t know if the band themselves actually were. One of their songs describes them listening to the Band Aid global fundraising concert to help the famine victims of Ethiopia and Africa. The song ends with the lines

‘But I didn’t send money
t’ starving n*ggers
Because I’m a fookin’ Nazi’

I’ve been told that the Macc Lad’s songs were not meant seriously. Sadly, Attenborough here appears to have joined them, and this time meant it.

I would hope that Attenborough reconsiders his position in this matter, and issue the apology for his comments that they demand.

Overpopulation in SF Cinema

Apart from this, problems of a vastly overpopulated world has been portrayed in two films, Soylent Green, starring Charlton Heston, and ZPG (Zero Population Growth), starring Oliver Reed. The future in ZPG is one in which, due to population pressure, even domestic animals, such as dogs and cats, have become extinct. The plot involves the attempts by the hero and his wife to preserve their child after the government outlaws having children.

Here’s the trailer for Soylent Green.


And this is the movie trailer for ZPG.


Moral Relativism in Totalitarian Dictatorships

May 30, 2013

Sir Isaiah Berlin, Vico and the Origins of the Rejection of Absolute Moral Values

One of the defining features of contemporary Postmodernism is its rejection of an absolute, transcendent morality. All societies are seen as equally valid in their worldviews, and attempts to evaluate them according to a particular system of morality are attacked as both philosophically incorrect and immoral. Indeed, the belief in an objective morality is viewed as one of the components of western imperialism and the horrific totalitarianisms of the 20th century. The attitude is not new, and certainly not pointless. The view that each period of history possessed its own unique morality goes back to the 17th -18th century philosopher, Giambattista Vico. In his book, Scienza Nuova (New Science), published in 1725, Vico argued that human history was divided into distinct cultural periods, so these periods could only be properly understood on their own terms. Vico’s view was championed after the War by the great British philosopher, Sir Isaiah Berlin. Berlin was horrified at the absolute moral authority claimed and demanded by the Fascist and Communist regimes. He was a leading figure during the Cold War of the 1950s to trace, explain and attack their ideological roots. He was particularly instrumental in making contact with an supporting some of the leading Soviet dissidents. Berlin attempted to counter their claims to absolute moral authority by denying the existence of absolute, unviersal moral values. He attempted to avoid the opposite pitfall of moral nihilism by stating that there were, however, certain values that acted as if they possessed a universal validity. One of these, for example, is the obvious injunction against killing innocents.

Franz Boas and Anthropological Opposition to Nazism and Racism

The view that every culture possesses its own unique worldview, and should be appreciated and assessed according to its values, rather than those of the West, was also pioneered by Franz Boas. Boas was a German anthropologist who migrated to America before the Second World War. He worked extensively among the Native American peoples, including the Inuit. Boas was Jewish, and had been driven out of his homeland by the Nazis. He formulated his rejection of a dominant, universal morality as a way of attacking the racist morality promoted by and supporting the Nazi regime. At the same time, he also sought to protect indigenous peoples against the assaults on their culture by Western civilisation under the view that such peoples were also morally and culturally inferior.

Moral Relativism in Hegel and Nietzschean Nihilism

In fact, the modern rejection of eternal, univeral moral values predates Berlin. It emerged in the 19th century in Hegelian philosophy and Nietzsche’s atheist existentialism. The attitude that there were no universal moral values, and that morality was relative, became increasingly strong after the First World War. Many Western intellectuals felt that the horrific carnage had discredited Western culture and the moral systems that had justified such mass slaughter. It was because of this background of cultural and moral relativism that Einsteins’s Theory of Relativity, which in fact has nothing to say about morality, was seized on by some philosophers as scientific justification for the absence of universal moral values.

Hegel viewed history as created through a process of dialectical change, as nations and cultures rose, fell and were superseded by higher cultures. As nations, states and cultures changed, so did ideas, and so there could be no universal ethical system. Furthermore, some events were beneficial even though they could not be justified by conventional morality. For example, those sympathetic to the Anglo-Saxons would argue that the Norman Conquest was immoral. Nevertheless, the Conquest also brought cultural and political advances and improvements. The dialectal process thus validated the Norman Conquest, even though the Conquest itself, by the standards of conventional morality, could be seen as morally wrong.

Apart from Hegel, Neitzsche also argued that without God, there were no objective moral standards. The individual was therefore free to create his own morals through heroic acts of will.

Hegel’s philosophy, although authoritarian, was developed to justify the new ascendant position of the Prussian monarchy after the Napoleonic Wars. The new Germany of the Hohenzollerns was, in his view, the culmination of the dialectal process. Nietzsche himself was a defender of aristocratic values, who despised the nationalism of the Wihelmine monarchy and the new mass politics. Despite their personal politics, elements of Hegelian philosophy became incorporated into Fascism and Communism, while Italian Fascism also contained the same atheist existentialism. Mussolini had been a radical Socialist before the foundation of the Fascist party and its alliance with and absorbtion of aggressively anti-socialist movements and parties. Even then, the party still contained radical socialist and particularly anarcho-syndicalist elements. These took their inspiration from the French Syndalist writer, Georges Sorel. Sorel considered that in the absence of universal moral values, what mattered was emotion and struggle. It was only in revolutionary conflict that the individual became truly free. This irrationalism thus served to justify the Fascist use of force and governments by elites, who rejected conventional morality.

Marx, Lenin and Moral Relativism

Marx followed Hegel in rejecting the existence of universal moral values. According to his doctrine of dialectal materialism, cultures and moral values were merely the ideological superstructure created by the economic basis of society. As the economic systems changed, so did a society’s culture and moral code. Moreover, each culture’s system of morality was appropriate for its period of economic and historical development. R.N. Carew Hunt in his examination of Communist ideology, The Theory and Practive of Communism, notes that the Communist Manifesto is the most powerful indictment of capitalism. It does not, however, condemn it as a morally wrong or unjust. When it does describe capitalism as exploitive, it is simply as a system of social relations, rather than a moral judgement. He quotes Marx’s own statement of Communist morality in his Ant-Duhring:

‘We therefore reject every attempt to impose on us any moral dogma whatsoever as an eternal, ultimate, and for ever immutable moral law on the pretext that the moral world too has its permanent principles which transcend history and the differences between nations. We maintain on the contrary that all former moral theories are the product, in the last analysis, of the economic stage which society had reached at that particular epoch. And as society has hitherto moved in class antagonisms, morality was always a class morality; it has either justified the domination and the interests of the ruling class, or, as soon as the oppressed class has become powerful enough, it has represented the revolt against this domination and the future interests of the oppressed. That in this process there has on teh whole been progress in morality, as in all other branches of human knowledge, cannot be doubted. But we have not yet passed beyond class morality. A really human morality which transcends class antagonisms and their legacies in thought becomes possible only at a stage of society whicdh has not only overcome class contradictions but has even forgotten them in practical life.’

Lenin’s own view of Marxist morality was expressed in his Address to the 3rd Congress of the Russian Young Communist League of 2nd October 1920:

‘Is there such a thing as Communist ethics? Is there such a thing as Communist morality? Of course there is. It is often made to appear that we have no ethics of our own; and very often the bourgeoisie accuse us Communists of repudiating all ethics. This is a method of throwing dust in the eyes of the workers and peasants.

In what sense doe we repudiate ethics and morality?

In the sense that it is preached by the bourgeoisie, who derived ethics from God’s commandments … Or instead of deriving ethics from the commandments of God, they derived them from idealist or semi-idealist phrases, which always amounted to something very similar to God’s commandments. We repudiate all morality derived from non-human and non-class concepts. We say that it is a deception, a fraud in the interests of the landlords and capitalists. We say that our morality is entirely subordinated to the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat. Our morality is derived from the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat…The class struggle is still continuing…We subordinate our communist morality to this task. We say: morality is what serves to destroy the old exploiting society and to unite all the toilers around the proletariat, which is creating a new communist society .. We do not believe in an eternal morality’.

Communist Morality Justified Brutality, against Judeo-Christian Values in British Ethical Socialism

The result was a highly utilitarian moral attitude which justified deceit, assassination and mass murder on the grounds that this assisted the Revolution and the Soviet system as the worker’s state. As the quotes from Lenin makes blatantly clearly, Communist morality was completely opposed to Western religious values. This amoral attitude to politics and human life and worth was condemned by members of the democratic left, such as Harold Laski, and Christian Socialists such as Kingsley Martin. In the June 1946 issue of New Statesman, Martin declared that Soviet morality was completely opposed to the Greco-Roman-Christiain tradition that stressed the innate value of the individual moral conscience. Christian socialism was a strong element in the British Labour party. Reviewing a history of the British working class’ reading over a decade ago, The Spectator stated that it wasn’t surprising that Communism didn’t get very far in Wales, considering that most of the members of the Welsh Labour party in the 1920 were churchgoing Christians who listed their favourite book as the Bible. As a result, the Russian Communists sneered at the Labour part for its ethical socialism. This was held to provide an insufficient basis for socialism, unlike Marx’s ‘scientific socialism’. If anything, the opposite was true.

Moral Relativism Does Not Prevent, But Can Even Support Totalitarianism

Now this does not mean that there is anything inherently totalitarian about moral relativism. Indeed, it is now used to justify opposition and resistance to Western imperialism and exploitation. It does not, however, provide a secure basis for the protection of those economic or ethnic groups seen as most vulnerable to such treatment.If there are no universal moral values, then it can also be argued that totalitarian regimes and movements also cannot be condemned for their brutal treatment of the poor, political opponents, and the subjugation or extermination of different races or cultures. Indeed, Marx and Engels looked forward to the disappearance of backward ethnic groups, like the Celts in Britain and France, and Basques in Spain as Capitalism advanced. When the various slavonic peoples in the German and Austro-Hungarian Empire revolted in the home of gaining independence in 1848, they condemned them as a threat to their own working-class movement and looked forward to a racial war against them. Their statement there presages the mass deportations and persecution of various ethnic minorities, including Cossacks, Ukrainians, Jews and some of the Caucasian Muslim peoples by the Stalinist state. And as it has been shown, moral relativism formed part of Italian Fascist and Russian Communist ideology.

Ability of Objective Morality to Defend Different Culture’s Right to Existence and Dignity

In fact you don’t need moral relativism to defend the rights of different peoples to dignity and the value of their culture. The very existence of human rights, including the rights of different ethnic groups to existence and the possession of their own culture, is based on the idea of an objective morality. All that is needed is to accept that each culture also has its own intrinsic moral value. One can and should be able to argue that certain aspects of another culture are objectively wrong, such as those institutions that may also brutalise and exploit women and outsiders to that culture. One can also recognise that these aspects do not necessarily invalidate the whole of that culture, or justify the brutalisation or extermination of its people.


R.N. Carew Hunt, The Theory and Practice of Communism (Harmondsworth: Pelican 1950)

David Fernbach (ed.), Karl Marx: The Revolutions of 1848 (Harmondsworth: Penguin/ New Left Review 1973)

The Seizure of Power – this study of the rise of Italian Fascism and Mussolini’s coup.

Moral Darwinism 2

January 19, 2008

One objection to the link I posited between Darwin’s theory of evolution and the massacres and brutality of the Nazi regimes is that massacre and brutality have always been a feature of human society long before Darwin. As Rich, one of the commentators to this blog points out, the Spartans in ancient Greece were doing it long before the Nazis in order to maintain their physical and military dominance as a herrenvolk over their conquered Messenian helots. Evil people will always use any doctrine as a pretext to support their brutality, so the horror of the shoah is not necessarily a product of Darwin’s theory.

Now I entirely agree with ability of humans to corrupt any institution, however noble. The great German theologian, Paul Tillich, dealt with this in his book Moral Man in Immoral Society, explaining the corruption and complicity in horror and brutality of the church through the all-too human corruption and brutality of its members, not through its doctrines. However, in the case of Darwinism the link between the atrocities of the Nazis to Darwin’s own theories come from those theories themselves, not from the Nazis reading their own twisted desires into them.

Firstly, while the destruction and sterilisation of those held to be unfit by society is indeed artificial selection, the eugenicists took it over from what they believed was occurring in nature. Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, coined the term ‘eugenics’ and was the first president of the Eugenics Society. In the 20th century, Darwin’s grandson also served as president of that society. The whole point of my original article was that the supposed difference between Nazi attitudes towards eugenics and racial science really wasn’t that far from established, mainstream scientific attitudes based on the ideas of Darwin himself, regardless of how much later anthropologists and evolutionary biologists have tried to distance themselves from the ideologies of the Fascist regimes.

Now not all eugenicists were Fascists by any means. Interest in eugenics and demands for selective breeding to control the human stock went right across the political spectrum. The geneticist Hermann J. Muller, who in 1912 advocated support for eugenics, was a politically progressive idealist who tried to emigrate to the USSR in the 1930s as part of his desire to build a better world. 1 The eugenics theories on which the Holocaust was based received enthusiastic support from German geneticists, anthropologists, psychiatrists and other members of the medical profession. 2 Indeed, while eugenics in Britain and America was dominated by people from the humanities and statisticians, in Germany it was dominated by doctors. 3 The Nazis themselves boasted that they were doing nothing that had not already been put into law or advocated by scientists elsewhere in Europe and America. ‘It is important to realize that the Nazis drew directly on eugenic arguments and programs developed by scientists and politicians in Great Britain and the United States. They just made these policies more inclusive and implemented them more decisively than British and American geneticists may have intended.’ 4 As early as 1897 the Michigan legislature considered and defeated a bill to sterilise those with ‘bad heredity’. In 1899 Dr. Harry Sharp began to perform involuntary vasectomies on convicts he considered to be ‘hereditary criminals’ at the Indiana State Reformatory at Jeffersonville. The Pennsylvania legislature in 1905 passed a bill providing for the compulsory sterilisation of ‘idiots and imbecile children’, though this was vetoed by Governor Samuel Pennypacker as illogical and immoral. 5 The first state to pass such legislation successfully in the US was Indiana. 6 The Swedes set up an Institute for Racial Biology in 1921, and made compulsory sterilisation legal in 1934. Although these sterilisations were in priniciple voluntary unless the subject was so retarded that they could not understand what was being done to them, there were considerable social pressures that forced unwilling Swedes to undergo the operation. Over the next thirty or so years, one per cent of the Swedish population – 63,000 people – were sterilised. 7 In 1923 a chair of Rassenhygiene – racial hygiene – was set up in Munich, occupied by Fritz Lenz, a supporter of Hitler’s NSDAP. 8 By 1931, 30 American states had enacted laws for the compulsory sterilisation of those they considered unfit, mostly aimed at the insane or ‘feeble-minded’. These laws were also occasionally extended to include sexual perverts, drug addicts, drunks, epileptics and others considered ill or degenerate. These laws remained mercifully unenforced, but by January 1935 20,000 people in the US, mostly in California, had been sterilised. 9

In America there was also a racist aspect to the eugenics programme. There was a concern about the quality of the new immigrants from Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe, seen by many WASP Americans, such as the racist author Madison Grant, as ‘the sweepings of gaols and asylums’. 10 Charles Davenport, the Harvard biologist who became the director of the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor in Long Island, shared these racist concerns and perceptions. The Irish, for example, were considered to be drunk and feckless, while Slavs were ‘dimwitted’. He was a friend of the racist academic and Nazi supporter, Eugen Fischer, one of the architects of the Nazi eugenics policies in Germany. Fischer specialised in the study of mixed-race children, and in 1929 Davenport invited him to chair a commission on the subject under the supervision of the International Federation of Eugenics Organisations. Through the introduction of the Stanford-Binet intelligence test, developed by Davenport’s fellow eugenicist, Henry Goddard, from the IQ test produced for the French government by Alfred Binet, administered in English to the new immigrants, who largely spoke no English, it was concluded that over half of these immigrants were mentally defective. Thus legislation was passed to prevent further immigration into America. Application of the same test to recruits to the US armed forces concluded that a large proportion of them were similarly ‘feeble-minded’, especially Blacks and those of eastern European stock. 11 Virginia suffered particularly from the excesses of the American eugenics programme. Whole families on welfare were rounded up, and large numbers of women and girls were sterilised. The architects of this odious policy were consciously concerned with outdoing the Nazis. In 1934 Dr. Joseph De Jarnette, one of the most vociferous advocates of mass sterilisation in the US, complained that ‘the Germans are beating us at our own game.’ 12 Evolutionary biologists and supporters of eugenics in Britain held similar views. Julian Huxley, the son of T.H. Huxley and the author of Neo-Darwinism – the Modern Synthesis, ridiculed the notion of the ideal Teuton in 1935 as being as ‘blond as Hitler, as tall as Goebbels, as slim as Goering, as dolichocephalic as Rosenberg and as manly as Streicher’. 13 Nevertheless, in a 1941 article, ‘The Vital Importance of Eugenics’ Huxley complained that it was ‘very difficult to envisage mehtods for putting even a limited constructive program [of eugencis] into effect .. due as much to difficulties in our present socioeconomic organization as to our ignorance of human heredity, and most of all to the absence of a eugenic sense in the public at large. 14 The eugenics legislation itself remained on the books until long after the Nazi era in those nations in which it had been passed. The Department of Race Genetics at the University of Uppsala was only closed down in 1975, and the Swedish eugenics legislation repealed in 1976. 15 The eugenics laws in California were repealed three years later in 1979, but by 1985 at least 19 states still retained eugenics legislation – Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montan, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia, according to the physician and lawyer Phillip Reilly. 16 There was even advocacy of euthanasia for the mentally subnormal amongst some, though mercifully this was never enacted. 17 James Watson, whose remarks last year on the supposed mental inferiority of Blacks caused such controversy, was working at the biological institute at Cold Spring Harbor at the time, although this institution no longer supports eugenics and made great pains to distance itself from his comments. Watson’s co-discoverer of DNA, James Crick, has also been an advocate of eugenics.

Now there’s no question that eugenics is a pseudo-science, and its shortcomings were exposed in America by the geneticist Thomas Hunt Moran and in Britain by Lionel Penrose, who occupied the chair at the Galton Laboratory. Penrose was a Quaker, who believed that a compassionate society should look after its supposed genetic defectives, rather than mutilate them. He also recognised that mental deficiency and indeed intelligence was not a simple Mendelian characteristic, but was the product of a number of factors and influenced by external circumstances. 18 Goddard himself became convinced on genetic scientific grounds that he was wrong, and publicly renounced his previous advocacy of eugenics. 19

Despite this, what emerges from this picture is that large sections of the European evolutionary and genetic scientific establishment believed in eugenics, following the arguments of Darwin and Galton, and that the Nazis’ genocidal regime was only the most extreme extension of these doctrines. The point of my original post was that Fascist extremists like Sir Oswald Mosley based their racial policies on Darwin and the pronouncements of respected and entirely respectable mainstream scientists. Rather than being something the Nazis read into Darwin, or distorted simply to justify their own brutal regime, Nazism was the product of Darwin’s evolutionary theories, albeit an extreme example that would have shocked Darwin himself. During the scandal over Watson’s comments, Sue Blackmore, the British psychologist and Sceptic, published a piece decrying what she saw as an attempt to silence scientists in the on-line section of the British liberal newspaper, the Guardian. Considering the staunch advocacy of eugenics by large sections of the scientific establishment, I strongly believe that scientists should be held to account for their views, and subject to criticism when these do seem to support brutality and racism.


1. Ruth Hubbard and Elijah Wald, Exploding the Gene Myth: How Genetic Information is Produced and Manipulated by Scientists, Physicians, Employers, Insurance Companies, Educators and Law Enforcers (Boston, Beacon Press 1997), p. 15.

2. Hubbard and Wald, Gene Myth, p. 17.

3. Walter Gratzer, The Undergrowth of Science: Delusion, Self-Deception and Human Frailty (Oxford, OUP 2000), p. 293.

4. Hubbard and Wald, Gene Myth, pp. 17-18.

5. Hubbard and Wald, Gene Myth, pp. 19-20.

6. Hubbard and Wald, Gene Myth, p. 20; Gratzer, Undergrowth of Science, p. 289.

7. Gratzer, Undergrowth of Science, pp. 290-1.

8. Gratzer, Undergrowth of Science, p. 293.

9. Hubbard and Wald, Exploding the Gene Myth, p. 21.

10. Gratzer, Undergrowth of Science, p. 286.

11. Gratzer, Undergrowth of Science, p. 287.

12. Gratzer, Undergrowth of Science, pp. 289-90.

13. Gratzer, Undergrowth of Science, p. 301.

14. Hubbard and Wald, Gene Myth, p. 16.

15. Gratzer, Undergrowth of Science, p. 291.

16. Hubbard and Wald, Gene Myth, p. 21.

17. Gratzer, Undergrowth of Science, p. 290.

18. Gratzer, Undergrowth of Science, p. 292.

19. Gratzer, Undergrowth of Science, p. 290.

The Natural History Of Religion

December 2, 2007

Amongst the various atheist texts attacking religion published recently, several have tried to undermine religion by attempting to provide a scientific, materialist account for its origin. Thus we have Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust and Daniel C. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, along with similar works by Pascal Boyer amongst others. The other week in the online comments section of the British liberal newspaper, the Guardian, Sue Blackmore, a psychology lecturer at the University of the West of England, was declaring that once it was realised how religion had evolved, people would be able to break free of it. The assumption behind these works is that religion has somehow evolved to satisfy psychological and sociological needs within humans through entirely materialistic processes, without any type of intervention or contact with any gods or other transcendent or supernatural beings. The assumption here is that once people realise that religion and god is merely the product of such impersonal, materialistic evolutionary, sociological and psychological forces, they’ll be able to see that it’s all false and they’ll become atheist rationalists, like the books’ authors.

Similar atheistic, rationalist attacks on the transcendent basis of religion have been made for centuries, since before ancient Rome so there’s nothing particularly new about these arguments. All of them are open to criticism on historical, anthropological and philosophical grounds. The evolutionary accounts of the origin of religion are actually particularly vulnerable. Evolutionary psychology is by no means firmly established, and many psychologists and philosophers are extremely sceptical about attempts to trace the origin of consciousness from the minds of contemporary humans. Indeed, there are aspects of the human psychology, such as aesthetics, which actually resist reduction to evolutionary origins. A transcendent realm of beauty and value, which for theists will include God, does indeed exist. And even if religion can be shown to have evolved, this may merely be the actualisation of the human awareness of the Almighty, rather than a construction of a mental idol. Finally, evolutionary approaches to the origin of religion also present problems for the atheist. For a trait to have arisen, it must confer some benefit on the organism. Furthermore, until very recently all human societies were theist or religious. Thus rather than being the default position of humanity, atheism is the sociological and psychological anomaly that needs to be explained and which, if the conventional logic of evolution is followed, confers no benefit to the organism.

Atheist Explanations of Religion in Euhemerus and Philo of Byblos

One of the earliest rationalist attempts to explain the origins of religion was that of Euhemerus, writing c. 320 BC, who believed that the Greek myths were merely legendary accounts of the lives of real people. This view strongly influenced the ancient Phoenician writer, Philo of Byblos. In his Cosmogony, Primitive History and History of the Uranides Philo presented the Phoenician gods as a race of mortals, albeit with superhuman powers, who arose from natural forces to discover the great inventions of civilisations. In his Cosmogony, the first principle was a troubled and windy air or dark chaos, which lasted for many centuries. From this troubled and windy air came the first principle of creation, Desire, and Mot. Far from being the god of death and drought of Canaanite religion, according to Philo, ‘some say that this was slime and others a rotting of aquatic composition. From it came all the germs of all created things and it was the origin of everything’. 1 From this slime appeared plants, animals and eventually the humans who became worshipped in their turn as gods. These first people ‘deified the products of the earth, considered them to be gods and worshipped them, ‘for from the earth they drew their substance, they and those who followed them and all those who had been before them; and they made libations and ritual aspersions’’. 2 Philo’s History of the Uranides in particular ‘treats the gods as ordinary mortals who take part in a series of adventures from which result the creation of royalty, the foundation of the first town, the invention of the plough and the cultivation of wheat, the institution of votive sacrifices and of human sacrifices, the construction of temples, the transition from free love to polygamy and finally monogamy.’3 Philo was writing at the end of the 1st century AD, so 1,700 years before Darwin there was an attempt to provide a rationalist account of the origin of religion and humanity through something like naturalistic evolution.

Hume’s Natural History of Religion

With the rise of modern Scepticism in the 17th and 18th centuries, the attempt to present a rationalist account of the origin of religion was revived, and was given its most influential treatment in David Hume’s The Natural History of Religion. Attacking the Christian doctrine that humanity had originally known only the one God, before falling into sin and idolatry, Hume created the modern scheme of the evolution of religion whereby humanity had originally been polytheists, rather than monotheists, and had gradually progressed to monotheism. ‘As far as writing or history reaches, mankind, in ancient times, appear universally to have been polytheists. Shall we assert, that, in more ancient times, before the knowledge of letters, or the discovery of any art or science, men entertained the principles of pure theism? That is, while they were ignorant and barbarous, they discovered truth: But fell into error, as soon as they acquired learning and politeness.’ 4

Humanity, according to Hume, had to come by its conception of God through a process by which primitive ideas of God were first gained from observation of the world around them, before being criticised and rejected as humanity moved on towards a more noble conception of the Lord. ‘It seems certain, that, according to the natural progress of human thought, the ignorant multitude must first entertain some grovelling and familiar notion of superior powers, before they stretch their conception to that perfect Being who bestowed order on the whole frame of nature. We may as reasonably imagine, that men inhabited palaces before huts and cottages, or studied geometry before agriculture; as assert that the Deity appeared to them a pure spirit, omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, before he was apprehended to be a powerful, though limited being, with human passions and appetites, limbs and organs. The mind rises gradually, from inferior to superior: By abstracting from what is imperfect, it forms an idea of perfection: And slowly distinguishing the nobler parts of its own frame from the grower, it learns to transfer only the former, much elevated and refine, to its divinity. Nothing could disturb this natural process of thought, but some obvious and invicible argument, which might immediately lead the mind into the principles of theism, and make it overleap, at one bound, the vast interval which is interposed between the human and the divine nature. But though I allow, that the order and frame of the universe, when accurately examined, affords such an argument, yet I can never think, that this consideration could have an influence on mankind, when they formed their first rude notions of religion.’ 5

19th Century Views of the Evolution of Religion

This idea of an evolution in religious thought through which humanity progressed from the deification of natural forces to the idea of a universal God powerfully affected Enlightenment and 19th century philosophical and anthropological accounts of the origin of religion. The German philosopher Hegel, for example, considered that the original religion was a Naturreligion of magic and fetishism, in which no duality was perceived between nature and spirit. The dialectical process in human culture of thesis-antithesis-synthesis separated ‘spirit’ from the material world, and then made spirit a ‘subject’ – an independent, personal deity, who worship contrasted with the lack of recognition given to the finite, created world. This, however, had been replaced by the ultimate stage in which God and the material world had been reconciled. For Hegel, this was in the conception of a transcendent yet immanent God in Christian dogma. 6

Auguste Comte, the founder of Positivism, took this rationalist view even further. Totally rejecting the reality of God in favour of religion of humanity, Comte viewed religion as entirely the projection of human characteristics on to a supposedly supernatural being. Not having a suitable rational explanation for the world and its natural phenomena, primitive humanity had attempted to explain them with the imaginative invention of a variety of gods, demons and ghosts. Humanity had first been animists, believing that gods existed within various natural forces, before moving to polytheism and finally to monotheism. This monotheism would be superceded in its turn by science. 7 Herbert Spencer, on the other hand, in his evolutionary account of the origin of religion, considered that primitive humanity was ‘beyond rational conjecture’, and so turned to dreams to provide a rational explanation for the natural world. The self they experienced in their dreams convinced them of the immortality of the soul, and that a similar self inhabited animals, plants and material objects. Later, these ancestral ghosts became worshipped as gods. 8 Edward Burnett Tylor, who became Oxford’s first professor of anthropology in 1896, believed that the origin of belief in the soul, and other spiritual beings, was an attempt to explain life’s crises like death, dreams, illness and disease by primitive humanity. 9 Finally, James George Frazer, drew on Comte to produce his own tripartite scheme of human intellectual progress. For Frazer, the final stage of human intellectual development was science, which naturally superceded religion. However, the origin of religion was not animism, but magic. Magic was originally an attempt to manipulate nature without respect to any deity. However, when primitive humanity realised that it could not control the world through magic, it attempted to explain this lack of success through the belief that this was because there were beings like humans, but far stronger, who really controlled the universe, and which must be propitiated. This resulted in an animistic conception of the universe, which finally yielded to monotheism. Magic was a primitive attempt at science, and religion was opposed to both science and religion. 10

H.G. Wells’ Views on the Evolution of Religion

H.G. Wells also attempted to provide a rationalist account of the origin of religion. He viewed primitive humanity as child-like. ‘Primitive man probably thought very much as a child thinks, that is to say, in a series of imaginative pictures. He conjured up images or images presented themselves to his mind, and he acted in accordance with the emotions they aroused.’ 11 These child-like first people created religion from their dreams and the animist conception of the world seen in children. These inspired stories, which were then established as legends as they were recounted by women. ‘The dreams, imaginations and fears of a child are far more vivid and real than those of a modern adult, and primitive man was always something of a child. He was nearer to the animals also, and he could suppose them to have motives and reactions like his own. He could imagine animal helpers, animal enemies, animal gods. One needs to have been an imaginative child oneself to realise again how important, significant, portentous or friendly strangely shaped rocks, lumps of wood, exceptional trees or the like may have appeared to the men of the Old Stone Age, and how dream and fancy would create stories and legends about such things that would become credible as they were told. Some of these stories would be good enough to remember and tell again. The women would tell them to the children and so establish a tradition. To this day most imaginative children invent long stories in which some favourite doll or animal or some fantastic semi-human being figures as the hero, and primitive man probably did the same-with a much stronger disposition to believe his hero real.’ 12

Wells also seems to have been strongly influenced by Freud’s theory that religion was based upon the respect for the father in the ur-human community, elaborated by their appearance in dreams after their death. ‘Some speculative writers would have us believe that respect and fear of the Old Man and the emotional reaction of the primitive savage to older protective women, exaggerated in dreams and enriched by fanciful mental play, formed a large part in the beginnings of primitive religion and in the conception of gods and goddesses. Associated with this respect for powerful or helpful personalities was a dread and exaltation of such personages after their deaths, due to their reappearance in dreams. It was easy to believe they were not truly dead but only fantastically transferred to a remoteness of greater power.’ 13 Following Frazer, he also found the origin of religion in fetishism, in a confused account of cause and effect used by primitive humans to control their environment: ‘There is no sort of savage so low as not have a kind of science of cause and effect. But primitive man was not very critical in his associations of cause with effect; he very easily connected an effect with something quite alien to its cause. “You do so and so,” he said, “ and so and so happens.” You give a child a certain berry and it dies. You eat the heart of a valiant enemy and you become strong. There we have to bits of cause and effect association, one true, one false. We call the system of cause and effect in the mind of a savage, Fetich; but Fetich is simply savage science. It differs from modern science in that it is totally unsystematic and uncritical and so more frequently wrong.’ 14 The result of this was that, for Wells, magic and fetishism was the origin of religion, and the tribal magicians the origin of later priesthood. ‘The expert in Fetich, the Medicine man, was the first priest. He exhorted, he interpreted dreams, he warned, he performed the complicated hocus pocus that brought luck or averted calamity. Primitive religion was not so much what we now call religion as practice and observance, and the early priest dictated what was indeed an arbitrary primitive practical science.’ 15

Julian Jaynes and the Bicameral Mind

The development of neurology and the scepticism of some of those in the hard sciences for the theory and methodology of psychoanalysis resulted in attempts to provide a neurological, rather than psychological explanation for the rise of religion in the formation of modern human consciousness. In the 1980s the neurologist Julian Jaynes suggested in his book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, that originally the two hemispheres of the human brain had not been fully integrated. Humanity experienced the promptings of the brain’s left hemisphere, which controlled intuition and creativity, as the voices of gods and ancestors. As the capacity to receive such sudden insights and mystical states became increasingly rare as humans integrated the two halves of their brains, those who were more easily able to achieve these states became venerated as shamans. Shamanism was the origin of later religion, whose priests mechanically followed the techniques and teachings of the ecstatic founders of their religion. Jaynes’ theory has been widely criticised and rejected by most, if not all, neurologists, though Daniel C. Dennett attempted to defend it in the essay ‘Julian Jaynes’s Software Archaeology’.16

Rationalist Critiques of Paganism in the Apocrypha

Now Judaism and Christianity have certainly not been opposed to finding rational explanations for certain types of religious phenomena. The ancient Hebrews believed that idolatry had arisen because humanity, separated from the true knowledge of God by the Fall, had mistaken natural phenomena for gods. The writer of the Wisdom of Solomon in the Apocrypha states this clearly ‘Surely vain are all men by nature, who are ignorant of God, and could not out of the good things that are seen know him that is: neither by considering the works did they acknowledge the workmaster; But deemed either fire, or wind, or the swift air, or the circle of the stars, or the violent water, or the lights of heaven, to the gods which govern the world.’ 17 Amongst deified natural phenomena, humans also created false gods from images made of their own leaders by subjects eager to please them and demonstrate their loyalty, and the grief-stricken fathers of dead children. ‘For a father afflicted with untimely mourning, when he hath made an image of his child soon taken away, now honoured him as a god, which was then a dead man, and delivered to those that were under him ceremonies and sacrifices. Thus in process of time an ungodly custom grown strong was kept as a law, and graven images were worshipped by the commandment of kings. Whom men could not honour in presence, because they dwelt far off, they took the counterfeit of his visage from far, and made an express image of a king whom they honoured, to the end that by this their forwardness they might flatter him that was absent, as if he were present. Also the singular diligence of the artificer did help to set forward the ignorant to more superstition. For he, peradventure willing to please one in authority, forced all his skill to make the resemblance of the best fashion. And the multitude, allured by the grace of the work, took him now for a god, which a little before was but honoured as a man. And this was an occasion to deceive the world; for men, serving either calamity or tyranny, did ascribe unto stones and stocks the incommunicable name.’ 18

The Wisdom of Solomon’s description of paternal mourning as the origin of one form of idolatry could be an attempt to account for the cult of the dead found in ancient Syria and Palestine. The Ras Shamra texts refer to ‘offerings at the aperture of the divine ancestor’, which may refer to apertures such as the pipes leading into bottomless jars so that libations could be poured into them. The dead were venerated in ancient Syria as bestowers of fertility who communicated supernatural revelations to their descendents. An inscription of King Tabnith of Sidon, dating from the 5th century BC, possibly refers to them as ‘divine’. Canaanite kings were particularly concerned to have their subjects continue to venerate their spirits after death so that they could enjoy companionship with their gods in the afterlife. In an inscription dated to c. 750 BC, the Aramaean king Panammu requests his descendents to invoke him when sacrificing to Baal, so that ‘his soul may eat and drink with Baal’. It has been suggested that the ban on offering a portion of the sacrifice to the dead in Deuteronomy 26:14 was a prohibition on giving these offerings to the dead.19 If that is the case, then the account of the rise of idolatry from mistaken grief given by the Wisdom of Solomon was a further attack on the custom by providing a rational account of its origin in addition to the ban imposed by Scripture.

Similarly, the statements in the Wisdom of Solomon that the images of kings were also responsible for their promotion into gods may also be a critique of the claims to divinity made by some of the kings in the ancient Near East. The Egyptian pharaoh, for example, was considered to be the son of Ra, the Sun god. 20 These kings partly enforced their authority through the production of images. When the Roman Empire later arose, the emperor was similarly considered a god. There was an official cult of the emperor’s numen, his spiritual principle, served by priests who made sacrifices before his image. It has been suggested that this identification of the ruler with his image is behind the Biblical statement in Genesis that men and women are formed in the image of God. Rulers expressed their authority through their graven image. However, God’s authority is shown in his image, men and women, who in their position, nature and functions are images and deputies of the Almighty on Earth. 21 If this is the case, then Genesis represents a radical attack on the institution of divine kingship and a democratisation of the notion of a divine element in humanity. In ancient Egypt the king, as a god, was kept rigorously separate from ordinary mortals. Yet by being made in the image of God, the Bible sees ordinary men and women as participating in the divine. The statement by the Wisdom of Solomon that the construction of idols had its origin in the worship of kings by their subjects provides a further, rational attack on the institution of pagan divine monarchy, supplementing the implications in Genesis.

This, however, is the difference between the attempt by the writers of the Apocrypha to provide a rationalist critique of pagan religion, and the attempts of the atheists to explain it away. The Wisdom of Solomon does not seek to undermine religion, or deny the existence of God. Rather it attempts to provide a rational explanation for wrongful religion, the creation of idols and false gods by humanity as a substitute for the true religion of the one God. Atheism took this critique of idolatry, and applied it to all religion. Every god, including the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, incarnated in Jesus Christ, was declared to be a human invention.

Criticisms of Theories of the Evolution of Religion

This attempt to explain away and dismiss religion as a whole is radically flawed. It depends deeply on prior materialist assumptions and from the projection into the past of behaviour observed in the present. And frequently, as in the description of the mind of ancient man as being child-like, was based on explicitly racist assumptions, which have been rejected by modern scholars. Stephen Jay Gould, for example, specifically attacked the Freudian assumption that children’s minds somehow recapitulated that of ancient man, and criticised those who sought to defend Freud by saying that exiled sons had not really killed their father in the remote, ur-human past. 22 Freud’s theory that religion had its roots in neurotic and obsessive behaviour generated by the trauma of violent events in the history of early humanity has now been discredited. It seems to me that the rise of recent books attempting to explain religion away are partly a response to the failure of one particularly influential atheist critique of religion. One atheist explanation of religion has been found false, so more must be promoted in case the atheist critique of religion as a whole be shown to be wrong.

Neurological accounts of the origin of religion, like Julian Jaynes, are similarly problematic. No physical tissue from early humans has so far survived, and discussions of the consciousness of early humanity depend strongly on the analysis of their material culture – the artefacts they left behind – and their comparison with similar behaviour by hunter-gatherer cultures today. Thus Palaeolithic rock art is considered by many archaeologists to be the product of shamanic religious experiences through analogy with similar rock art produced by similar cultures, like the San people of South Africa, which have been recorded by anthropologists. While the archaeologists and anthropologists who have suggested this have presented a convincing case, nevertheless the neurology that produced and produces such artwork is that of modern humans. Human cognitive evolution therefore remains very much a contested area. Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind has been severely criticised and rejected because of its highly conjectural nature, and of the severe mental disabilities a society composed of people who possessed such a consciousness would suffer. A friend of mine, a psychiatric nurse, pointed out to me that the people Jaynes suggests in his book had such a sharply differentiated mind would have been acute schizophrenics. In his opinion such people would have found it extremely difficult to cope with normal life, let alone produce the glories of art found in the Palaeolithic past.

Similarly, attempts to trace a linear development from some earlier stage of religion – fetishism, animism, Shamanism or magic have also been found to be extremely problematic because of the existence of these forms of religion amongst much higher conceptions of God. Frazer’s view of magic has been thoroughly rejected by anthropologists. The Anglo-Polish anthropologist, Boleslaw Malinowski, who was an admirer of Frazer, stated that Frazer’s theory of magic was untenable. Primitive humanity was well aware of the scientific laws of natural process. They knew the laws of cause and effect, and were aware of the difference between their subjective associations and external, objective reality. Frazer, on the other hand, had assumed that they did not. 23 Thus Frazer’s account of the origin of religion from magic is inaccurate, and rejected.

Tylor’s views on the origin of religion have also been rejected. Sir Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard, commenting on Tylor’s belief that religion arose from wrong ideas about natural phenomena and dreams and trances, asked why it was that belief in the soul should have lasted for millennia and continued to be held by millions of civilised people today. 24 Tylor’s own disciple, Andrew Lang, noted that alongside their animistic and totemistic beliefs, primitive people often had a far higher conception of God than many races far more advanced in civilisation. In his The Making of Religion of 1898, Lang stated ‘that the savage theory of the soul may be based, at least in part, on experiences which cannot, at present, be made to fit into any purely materialistic system of the universe.’ There was also ‘evidence tending to prove that the idea of God, in its earliest shape, need not logically be deduced from the idea of spirit, however that idea itself may have been attained or evolved. The conception of God, then, need not be evolved out of reflections on dreams and ‘ghosts’.’ 25 This statement that the conception of God could not have evolved from ghosts or spirits influenced a number of Christian scholars, including the missionary, Fr. Wilhelm Schmidt, who found evidence of monotheism amongst the peoples considered most archaic, Aboriginal Tasmanians and Andaman Islanders. 26 Scholars of traditional Siberian religion, such as Dr. Ronald Hutton, have also pointed out the ambiguous nature of the evidence for Palaeolithic Shamanism. The dancing figures with animal heads found in cave paintings in southern France, sometimes considered to be pictures of shamans, could also represent gods, spirits or hunters disguised in animal skins to confuse their prey. They are never shown in trance or dancing before an audience. 27 Furthermore, even if these are shamans, this does not mean that shamanism itself is a survival from the Palaeolithic. ‘The problem is that nobody has any way of determining whether these are cases of survival from a common Palaeolithic heritage or of parallel evolution of customs by peoples with roughly similar social organisations in roughly similar environments.’ 28 If that is the case, then Shamanism could be a form of religion into which people could descend, rather than from which they progress, following the general Positivist evolutionary schema.

The Existence of Monotheist Elements in Polytheism

Supporters of the idea of an original monotheism, from which early humanity descended in polytheism, such as Fr. Schmidt, pointed to the fact that many polytheistic religions nevertheless had a conception of a supreme god close to the Judaeo-Christian conception of God. The conception of the god Kwoth in Nuer religion, considered as a benevolent father, who is particularly associated with the sky, but not identical with it, immaterial and omnipresent, is similar in many ways to the God of the Bible. 29 The Indians of the American Great Plains similarly believed in an all-powerful and invisible supreme being, the Great Spirit, Master of Life, our Father the Sky or the Great Mystery, who was not represented as possessing a definite form, but through symbols, such as that for dawn. 30 Similarly the Pericu Indians of California also believed in a supreme deity, Niparaya, who created heaven and earth and gives food to all creatures. Although he possesses a wife, by whom he had children, Niparaya was a spirit, invisible and without a body. 31 Thus in the religions and mythologies of peoples across the world there was an element of monotheism, even if this was not fully realised. This makes the idea of a straightforward evolution from polytheism to monotheism problematic.

Criticism of Hume’s Assumptions about the Evolution of Religion

In fact Hume’s argument for the evolution of religion from polytheism to monotheism is based on primarily on his belief that monotheism itself is such a lofty doctrine that no people who heard it and were convinced of it could fall away into polytheism. However, this is to ignore the witness of the Bible. Even after the establishment of the Mosaic Law and covenant with the Lord, Israel and its kings repeatedly fell into apostasy and the worship of the Canaanite gods. Hume even contradicts himself on this point. In the Natural History of Religion he states that simple observation of the universe presented convincing evidence that there was only one God. However, part of the argument against natural theology in his Dialogues is that the unity and order of the universe is not necessarily evidence that it was created by only one God. He also devotes part of the Natural History of Religion to arguing that ancient paganism was more tolerant than monotheists. ‘The intolerance of almost all religions, which have maintained the unity of God, is as remarkable as the contrary principle of polytheists. The implacable narrow spirit of the Jews is well known. Mahometanism set out with still more bloody principles; and even to this day, deals out damnation, though not fire and faggot, to all other sects. And if, among Christians, the English and Dutch have embraced the principles of toleration, this singularity has proceeded from the steady resolution of the civil magistrate, in opposition to the continued efforts of priests and bigots.’ 32 This argument, that paganism is naturally more tolerant than monotheism, has been one of the major motives in the contemporary pagan revival. Thus while Hume was an agnostic, rather than pagan or atheist, he himself provides arguments against monotheism as a doctrine which is so intellectually convincing, that no rejection of it is possible once it has been established.

Religion as Encounter with a Transcendent ‘Thou’

Hume, Tylor and Frazer were also mistaken about the essential nature of religion. They felt it was to provide some kind of explanation for the existence of world and its phenomena, or else to provide solutions to the problems from which humanity suffers, like death, disease, famine and so on. This is undoubtedly part of the function of religion, but it is not the whole or the central, definitive feature of religious experience. For those scholars who follow the view of the great German Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, the essential feature of religion is a relationship between ‘I’ and ‘Thou’. The world as experienced by the ‘I’ of the religious believer isn’t an object, but a ‘Thou’ – a living personality to which they must respond. This ‘Thou’ can be experienced in separate phenomena, and so be conceptualised in different, even contradictory forms. As simple explanations, these competing forms clearly contradict each other, but as expressions of a controlling ‘Thou’ behind them, they may find an equal place in the pantheon. ‘We see, again, that the ancients’ conception of phenomenon differed according to their approach to it. Modern scholars have reproached the Egyptians for their apparent inconsistencies and have doubted their ability to think clearly. Such an attitude is sheer presumption. Once one recognizes the processes of ancient thought, their justification is apparent. After all, religious values are not reducible to rationalistic formulas. Natural phenomena, whether or not they were personified and became gods, confronted ancient man with a living presence, a significant ‘Thou’, which, again, exceeded the scope of conceptual definition. In such cases our flexible thought and language clearly modify certain concepts so thoroughly as to make them suitable to carry our burdens of expression and significance. The mythopoeic mind, tending toward the concrete, expressed the irrational, not in our manner, but by admitting the validity of several avenues of approach at one and the same time. The Babylonians, for instance, worshipped the generative force in nature in several forms: its manifestation in the beneficial rains and thunderstorms was visualised as a lion-headed bird. Seen in the fertility of the earth, it became a snake. Yet in statues, prayers, and cult acts it was represented as a god in human shape…We should not doubt that mythopoeic thought fully recognizes the unity of each phenomenon which it conceives under so many different guises; the many-sidedness of its images serves to do justice to the complexity of the phenomenon.’ 33

Materialism Assumed but not Proved by Atheist Critiques of Religion

A more profound failing of these attempts to explain away religion is their basis in materialism. Hume assumes that humans must have moved from polytheism to monotheism based on rational analysis of the phenomenon around them, and not by revelation. He does not, however, provide any arguments against revelation. He just assumes it does not exist. Yet if revelation does exist, and God clearly spoke to the ancient Hebrews saying ‘You shall have no other gods before me’, then clearly his entire scheme of the evolution of religion is thrown into serious doubt, if not entirely contradicted.

Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer, in their analysis of religion, treat is an entirely sociological phenomenon. It exists merely to satisfy sociological needs – for moral laws, a coherent scheme for appropriate conduct and behaviour creating a moral community. In this view, people continue to believe in supernatural beings and practice their religions because it brings them this-worldly benefits, like success in hunting, harvests or work, a sense of community with their fellows and so on. Now undoubtedly it is the case that people practice their religion in expectation that they will receive some material benefits. The Mosaic Law creates the conditions through which one may be included in the congregation of Israel, a member of Israel as a religious community. Correct observance of the Law brings the promise of a long and successful life. The commandment to ‘honour thy father and mother’ has the condition ‘that thou may live long in the land that I, the Lord, shall give you.’ Yet religion is not reducible merely to a set of sociological principles. While social anthropologists like A. Radcliffe-Brown attempted to reduce society to general principles, Evans-Pritchard instead adopted a hermeneutic approach, attempting to understand religion through its ideas, metaphors, and the meaning of its rituals, thus understanding it as an independent system in its own right. 34

Cognitivist Approaches to Religion

Other scholars have turned from a sociological perspective towards a Cognitivist approach to analysing religion. This draws heavily on evolutionary psychology to state that humans have produced representations of the gods because humans evolved to do so. ‘Evolutionary science postulates no change in the human brain and mind which would have rendered them markedly different now from what they were and how they functioned in classical antiquity. Quite the contrary, we may safely assume that we form our representations of supernatural beings, to all intents and purposes, just as the ancients did. Any adaptive changes, so cognitive theory argues, took place in earlier and far longer epochs as our remote ancestors passed through the hunter-gatherer phase, and they took place in response to the exigencies of the hunter-gatherers’ environment. They occurred because they gave those hunter-gatherers with these adaptations a competitive and reproductive edge over those without.’ 35 Thus humans believe in gods not because they belong to a particular culture, but simply because this is part of human evolutionary nature. ‘We form representations of supernatural beings not by virtue of membership in societies and cultures but by virtue of membership in the species Homo Sapiens. Our particular societies and cultures shape and standardise our representations, conforming them to the various explicit tradition current and licensed in our various times and places. But it is we who construct the gods, not ‘society’, not ‘culture’; and ‘we’ means the human mind functioning in the human brain.’ 36

Despite the radical reductionism of the Cognitivist approach to religion, this clearly presents problems for the atheist. Firstly, it religion has evolved to confer a benefit on the species, then it is not the negative force which atheism views it. Indeed, it may be atheism that is, in evolutionary terms, a negative phenomenon. Furthermore it corroborates the statement by Calvin that people naturally have a ‘sensus divinitatis’ or sense for the divine.

Criticisms of Evolutionary Psychology

Also, socio-biology and evolutionary psychology themselves are highly conjectural approaches to human psychology. Despite claims that these approaches will provide satisfying accounts of human behaviour, philosophers have objected that they are radically incomplete. Human self-consciousness means that humans are rational agents in a way other parts of the universe are not, and make decisions and act in ways that do not conform to Darwinian principles. Indeed some philosophers have argued that evolutionary psychology is actually pre-scientific in the way it presents man as part of the cosmos in a manner similar to the conception of humanity as the microcosm – the universe in miniature – in ancient Greek philosophy. ‘Far-fetched as Socrates as microcosm might seem today, those who would wish to explain human behaviour without reference to mind, and who would disparage explanations of actions in terms of doing what is for the best as folk psychology, are making an analogous move in reverse rather than treating the macrocosm by analogy with the microcosm, they are treating the microcosm as analogy with the macrocosm. They are treating the microcosm (man) as it if were just part of the macrocosm, and guided and animated by the same principles. But this is surely misguided. Whatever we decide about or ultimate destination and origin, it remains the case that we, as human beings and as self-conscious agents, can question our standing in the world in a way no other part of nature can. This, indeed, is part of what ‘acting for the best’ comprises: raising questions about our relationship to the rest of nature and to each other. The normativity, the search for truth for its own sake, which this involves, engages us in types of considerations which are not found in the scientific descriptions and explanations, whether those of physics or of biology.’ 37

Rudolf Otto on the Evolution of Religion

In fact the inadequacy of evolutionary theory for providing a complete account of the origin of religion, or of explaining it away, was discussed nearly a century ago by the great German religious scholar, Rudolf Otto, in his 1917 The Idea of the Holy. Evolutionary theory could only offer partial or inadequate solutions, as it could not study early hominids, like Pithecanthropus, directly, but only make inferences about them through modern human behaviour, a process that was nevertheless flawed because of the highly conjectural nature of such similarities. Nor could it explain the soul and the emergence of life from dead matter. Rather, there existed in humanity a predisposition to religious experience that was activated and developed through evolution.

‘The justification of the ‘evolutionist’ theory of to-day stands or falls with its claim to ‘explain’ the phenomenon of religion. That is in truth the real task of the psychology of religion. But in order to explain we must have the data from which an explanation may be forthcoming; out of nothing nothing can be explained. Nature can only be explained by an investigation into the ultimate fundamental forces of nature and their laws; it is meaningless to propose to go farther and explain these laws themselves, for in terms of what are they to be explained? But in the domain of spirit the corresponding principle from which an explanation is derived is just the spirit itself, the reasonable spirit of man, with its predispositions, capacities, and its own inherent laws. This has to be presupposed: it cannot itself by explained. None can say how mind or spirit ‘is made’ – though this is in effect just what the theory of epigenesis is fain to attempt. The history of humanity begins with man, and we have to presuppose man, to take him for granted as he is, in order that from him we may understand his history. That is, we must presuppose man as a being analogous to ourselves in natural propensities and capacities. It is a hopeless business to seek to lower ourselves into the mental life of a pithecanthropus erectus; and, even if it were not, we should still need to start from man as he is, since we can only interpret the psychical and emotional life of animals regressively by clumsy analogies drawn from the developed human mind. To try, on the other hand, to understand and deduce the human from the sub-human or brute mind is to try to fit the lock to the key instead of vice versa; it is to seek to illuminate light by darkness. In the first appearance of conscious life on dead unconscious matter we have a simple, irreducible, inexplicable datum. But that which here appears is already a manifold of qualities, and we can only interpretit as a seed of potentiality, out of which issue continually maturer powers and capacities, as the organization of the body increases in stability and complexity. And the only way we can throw any light upon the whole region of sub-human psychical life is by interpreting it once again as a sort of predisposition’ at a second remove, i.e. a predisposition to form the predispositions or faculties of the actual developed mind, and standing in relation to this as an embryo to the full grown organism.’ 38 For Otto, the experience of the numinous came from the deepest part of the human soul. It was not created by sense experience, but was merely stimulated and actualised by it. ‘the numinous is of the latter kind. It issues from the deepest foundation of cognitive apprehension that the soul possesses, and, though it of course comes into being in and amid the sensory date and empirical material of the natural world and cannot anticipate or dispense with those, yet it does not arise out of them, but only by their means.’ 39 The numinous – the experience of the holy – was thus a transcendent concept as independent of sense experience as the pure reason postulated by Kant. 40 Criticising the origin of religion in animism and magic suggested by scholars like Tylor and Frazer, Otto turned it these notions on their heads. They could not explain religion, but only be explained by the later development of religion. Religion was primal aspect of the human constitution that was purely unique and could not be understand through anything else. ‘If the examples number 1 to 8 may be termed ‘pre-religion’, this is not in the sense that religion and the possibility of religion are explicable by their means: rather, they are themselves only made possible and can only be explained from a religious basic element, viz. the feeling of the numinous. This is a primal element of our psychical nature that needs to be grasped purely in its uniqueness and cannot itself be explained from anything else. Like all other primal psychical elements, it emerges in due course in the developing life of human mind and spirit and is thenceforward simply present.’ 41

Religion as A Priori Concept

Although rejecting the notion of primitive monotheism as ‘missionary apologetic’, and firmly believing that humanity moved from primitive forms of religion, such as the belief in ghosts and demons to monotheism, Otto nevertheless appreciated that higher forms of religion certainly existed among polytheist peoples. ‘But they do point to facts, which remain downright riddles, if we start from any naturalistic foundation of religion – whether animism, pantheism or another – and must in that case be got out of the way by the most violent hypotheses. The essence of the matter is this, that elements and strands are to be found in numerous mythologies and the stories of savage tribes, which reach altogether beyond the point they have otherwise attained in religious rites and usages. Notions of ‘high gods’ are adumbrated, with whom the savage has often hardly any relations in practice, if any at all, and in whom he yet acknowledges, almost in spite of himself, a value superior to that of all other mythological images, a value which may well accord with the divine in the highest sense.’ 42 The idea of the holy is an a priori concept, according to Otto, an innate truth. And the existence of this innate truth is demonstrated by the fact that subsequent developments in the idea of divinity are accepted when they are first announced, without any logical necessity. ‘How should it be logically inferred from the still ‘crude’, half-daemonic character of a moon-god or a sun-god or a numen attached to some locality, that he is a guardian and guarantor for the oath and of honourable dealing, of hospitality, of the sanctity of marriage, and of duties to tribe and to clan?’ 43 Indeed, when Socrates in Plato’s Republic declares that God is single, true, unchanging and does not deceive others, what is remarkable is not the new, impressive conception of God formed by the great Greek philosopher, but the dogmatic tone in which he pronounces it and the fact that it is uncritically accepted as true by his companion, Adeimantos. ‘And his assent is such as implies convincement; he does not simply believe Socrates; he sees clearly for himself the truth of his words. Now this is the criterion of all a priori knowledge, namely, that, so soon as an assertion has been clearly expressed and understood, knowledge of its truth comes into the mind with the certitude of first-hand insight.’ 44 The a priori nature of the religious feeling is demonstrated in Luther’s own comments about the innate feeling of God present throughout humanity. ‘The knowledge of God is impressed upon the mind of every man by God. Under the sole guidance of nature all men known that God is – without any acquaintance with the arts or sciences; and this is divinely imprinted upon all men’s minds. There has never been a people so wild and savage that it did not believe that there is some divine power that created all things’. 45 This did not mean that everyone possessed an idea of God – Otto distinguished between a priori conceptions and innate conceptions. Rather it meant that there was a predisposition towards the knowledge of God that everyone had the potential to possess, but which often needed to be awakened by a higher nature, such as a prophet or the Son of God. 46

For Rudolf Otto knowledge of God was a transcendent capacity, which existed in humanity like Kant’s pure reason. Biological evolution developed this and brought it out, but did not create it. Some evolutionary biologists have concurred at least partly with this view. The British evolutionary biologist, Sir Aleister Hardy, considered that religion was indeed the product of human biological and psychological evolution, but that nevertheless it corresponded with and was based on a real external, objective experience, and quoted the great French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, on the objective reality of the religious experience.

Evolution of Religion based on Transcendent Reality

‘Our entire study rests upon this postulate that the unanimous sentiment of the believers of all times cannot be purely illusory. Together with a recent apologist of the faith [William James] we admit that these religious beliefs rest upon a specific experience whose demonstrative value is, in one sense, not one bit inferior to that of scientific experiments, though different from them.’ 47 Hardy believed that when praying ‘we are making contact with what we call the Divine which is in part within ourselves, in our subconscious, but in part beyond ourselves.’ 48 It’s remarkable, and unorthodox view of God, but nevertheless has contacts with and indeed corroborates the perfectly orthodox Christian doctrine that God has written a consciousness of Himself on humanity’s hearts, an inner consciousness that points to His objective existence.

Similarly, attempts to explain religious ritual behaviour as the product of human evolution through analogy with the behavioural rituals of various animals, such as those of Julian Huxley and Konrad Lorenz, and Eugene d’Aquili’s and Andrew Newberg’s claim that human religious experience may be hard-wired through evolution, based on their brain-imaging scans of Buddhist monks and Franciscan nuns in prayer, may actually point to an ultimate transcendental origin of religion. If that is the case, then brain imaging scans have nothing to say about the reality of the religious experience. ‘One could say that the brain wiring developed as our ancestors responded to a transcendent reality. Every claim about reality, whether of a table, an electron, or another person’s love, requires neural activity in the brain. The reality of the referent of our symbols can never be determined by examining the brain.’ 49

This perhaps explains the increasing desperation amongst some atheist polemicists to provide a materialistic explanation for religion, and the shrill tone of atheist denunciations of religion as a maladaptive form of evolutionary behaviour. Rationalist criticisms of religion have failed to explain religion away, and the major 19th century attempts to account for its origin have now been rejected. Freudianism in particular is no longer taken seriously by scholars as such an explanation of religion. Similarly attempts to explain religion as based on the child-like thinking patterns of primitive people have been demonstrated as being scientifically wrong and based on racism. Dawkins’ pronouncement in The God Delusion that belief in God was like children’s imaginary friends has more than a passing resemblance to these discredited theories and is no more convincing. Religion, like so much else in human nature, cannot be simply reduced to evolutionary explanations. Instead, such explanations, rather than disproving religion, may demonstrate that religion confers a benefit upon humans as biological organisms and point to its basis in the transcendent reality of the Almighty. Indeed, these may even act to provide some support to the traditional Christian doctrine that a knowledge, or predisposition to the knowledge of God is ubiquitous throughout humanity. The ancient Hebrews were able to use rationalist critiques of ancient religions to demonstrate their falsity against the true religion of the one God. However, rationalist attempts to explain away religion as a whole have proven to be extremely problematic, and have paradoxically succeeded in rendering atheism problematic, irrational, and a potentially destructive evolutionary anomaly.


  1. ‘Phoenician Mythology’ in Felix Guirand, ed., Richard Addington and Delano Ames, trans. New LaRousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (London, Hamlyn 1968 p. 82.
  2. Philo of Byblos, Primitive History, cited in ‘Phoenician Mythology’ in Guirand, Mythology, p. 83.
  3. ‘Phoenician Mythology’ in Guirand, Mythology, p. 83.
  4. ‘The Natural History of Religion’ in David Hume, ed. J.C.A. Gaskin, Dialogues and Natural History of Religion (Oxford, OUP 1993), p. 135.
  5. Hume, ed. Gaskin, Natural History of Religion, pp. 135-6.
  6. Clinton Bennett, In Search of the Sacred: Anthropology and the Study of Relgion (London, Cassell 1996), p. 25.
  7. Bennett, In Search of the Sacred, p. 28.
  8. Bennett, In Search of the Sacred, p. 30.
  9. Bennett, In Search of the Sacred, p. 36.
  10. Bennett, In Search of the Sacred, p. 40.
  11. H.G. Wells, A Short History of the World (London, Watts & Co 1929), p. 36.
  12. Wells, History of the World, pp. 37-8.
  13. Wells, History of the World, p. 37.
  14. Wells, History of the World, p. 38.
  15. Wells, History of the World, p. 39.
  16. ‘Julian Jaynes’s Software Archaeology’ in Daniel C. Dennett, Brainchildren: Essays on Designing Minds (London, Penguin 1998), pp. 121-130.
  17. Wisdom of Solomon 13: 1-2, The Apocrypha (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), p. 65.
  18. Wisdom of Solomon 14: 12-21, The Apocrypha, p. 66.
  19. ‘Syria and Palestine’ in Encyclopedia of World Mythology (London, Peerage Books 1975), p. 109.
  20. John A. Wilson, ‘The Function of the State’ in Henri Frankfort, Mrs. H.A. Frankfort, John A. Wilson and Thorkild Jacobsen, Before Philosophy: The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1949), p. 81.
  21. ‘Old Testament Theology’ in D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer, A.M. Stibbs and D.J. Wiseman, eds., The New Bible Commentary Revised (Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press 1970), p. 21.
  22. ‘Freud’s Evolutionary Fantasy’ in Stephen Jay Gould, The Richness of Life (London, Vintage 2007), pp. 467-480.
  23. Bennett, In Search of the Sacred, p. 40.
  24. Bennett, In Search of the Sacred, p. 37.
  25. Andrew Lang, The Making of Religion, 1898, p. 2, cited in Bennett, In Search of the Sacred, p. 37.
  26. Bennett, In Search of the Sacred, p. 38.
  27. Ronald Hutton, The Shamans of Siberia (Glastonbury, The Isle of Avalon Press 1993), p. 14.
  28. Hutton, Shamans of Siberia, p. 15.
  29. E.E. Evans-Pritchard, ‘God in Nuer Religion’, in Whitfield Foy, The Religious Quest (London, Routledge 1978), pp. 557-576.
  30. ‘Mythology of the Two Americas’ in Guirand, New LaRousse Encylopedia of Mythology, p. 431.
  31. Mythology of the Two Americas’ in Guirand, New LaRousse Encylopedia of Mythology, p. 434.
  32. Hume, ed. Gaskin, Natural History of Religion, p. 162.
  33. H. and H.A. Frankfort, ‘Myth and Reality, in Frankfort, Frankfort, Wilson and Jacobsen, Before Philosophy, pp. 28-9.
  34. ‘Evans-Pritchard, Sir Edward’ in John Bowker, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (Oxford, OUP 1997), p. 326.
  35. Roger Beck, The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire (Oxford, OUP 2006), p. 90.
  36. Beck, Mithras Cult, p. 89.
  37. Anthony O’Hear, Beyond Evolution: Human Nature and the Limits of Evolutionary Explanation (Oxford, Clarendon 1997), p. 12.
  38. Rudolf Otto, John W. Harvey, trans., The Idea of the Holy (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1959), pp. 131-2.
  39. Otto, Idea of the Holy, p. 130.
  40. Otto, Idea of the Holy, p. 131.
  41. Otto, Idea of the Holy, p. 141.
  42. Otto, Idea of the Holy, p. 146.
  43. Otto, Idea of the Holy, p. 153.
  44. Otto, Idea of the Holy, p. 154.
  45. Luther, Table Talk, quoted in Otto, Idea of the Holy, p. 156.
  46. Otto, Idea of the Holy, pp. 194-5.
  47. Alister Hardy, The Biology of God: A Scientist’s Study of the Religious Animal (London, Jonathan Cape 1975), p. 77.
  48. Hardy, Biology of God, p. 230.
  49. Ian Barbour, Nature, Human Nature and God (London, SPCK 2002), p. 48.