Archive for the ‘Sociology of Religion’ Category

Trailer for HBO Series on Heaven’s Gate Suicide Cult

January 12, 2021

The ’90s were a decade marred by the mass deaths of cult members. There was the Order of the Solar Temple, the horrific immolation of the Branch Davidians in their conflict with the FBI and Heaven’s Gate. HBO Max started screening a documentary series about the latter on December 3rd last year. I found this trailer for it on YouTube. Although it’s just over 2 minutes long, it shows the cult’s main beliefs and the background to the tragedy.

The cult was led by a man and woman, here identified as ‘Do’ and ‘Ti’. They died wearing badges announcing that they were an ‘away team’, and believed that after they left their bodies, they would ascend to become aliens of a superior species and take their seats in a spacecraft in or following a visiting comment. Several of the men had been castrated. Their bodies were discovered covered in purple sheets.

The blurb for the series on its YouTube page gives a bit more information. It says

“Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults” is a thorough examination of the infamous UFO cult through the eyes of its former members and loved ones. What started in 1975 with the disappearance of 20 people from a small town in Oregon ended in 1997 with the largest suicide on US soil and changed the face of modern new age religion forever. This four-part docuseries uses never-before-seen footage and first-person accounts to explore the infamous UFO cult that shocked the nation with their out-of-this-world beliefs.

“Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults” is a Max Original produced by CNN and Campfire. Directed and executive produced by Clay Tweel (“Gleason”), the docuseries is also executive produced by Campfire CEO Ross Dinerstein (“The Innocent Man”) and Shannon Riggs, with Chris Bannon, Eric Spiegelman, Peter Clowney and Erik Diehn executive producing for the digital media company Stitcher (“Heaven’s Gate” podcast, “Sold in America” podcast).

Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults | Official Trailer | HBO Max – YouTube

The Fortean Times did a piece about the cult. As the TV series’ blurb says, the two cult leaders had been knocking around the UFO world for years. I can’t remember their real names, except that they had a couple of nicknames. Apart from ‘Do’ and ‘Ti’, they were also called ‘Him’ and ‘Her’. I think their message had started off claiming that they end was nigh, but that the Space Brothers were coming to help us. It’s a message shared by several UFO religions and Contactees. In the 1950s a Chicago psychic had claimed she had received similar messages telepathically from alien telling her that the world was going to end, but she was to assemble as many followers as she could. These would then be saved by the aliens, who would take them aboard their spacecraft. The psychic and her followers duly assembled on the date of the predicted arrival of the aliens, but the world didn’t end and the aliens didn’t show up. The group had, however, been joined by a group of sociologists from Chicago University, who were studying them. They were particularly interested in how the cult’s members continued to believe in its central message even after it had failed to come true. One of the sociologist’s published a book about it, entitled, When Prophecy Fails, which I think is now a classic of academic studies on UFOs and their believers. The psychic’s group differed from Heaven’s Gate in that none of them, I believe, committed suicide.

The aliens in which Heaven’s Gate believed were bald and asexual, and look very much like one of the stereotypes of UFO aliens taken from SF ‘B’ movies. The bald heads and large craniums show that the aliens are super-intelligent. It ultimately comes from a 19th century evolutionary theory, which held that as humanity evolved, the brain would expand at the expense of the body, and the sensual aspects of humanity would similarly wither. As a result, humans would become smaller, with larger heads and brains. The ultimate endpoint of this evolution are H.G. Wells’ Martians from The War of the Worlds. Astronomers at the time believed that Mars was an older world than Earth, and so Wells’ Martians are similarly far more advanced in their evolution than terrestrial humanity. They consist of large heads with tentacles. As their brains have expanded, their digestive systems have atrophied so that they feed by injecting themselves with blood.

It’s because their supposed aliens were asexual that some of the men in the group had travelled to Mexico to be castrated. It’s also been suggested that it may also have been because the group’s male leader was gay. If he was, and the group’s rejection of gender and sexuality stemmed from his failure to come to terms with his sexuality, then it’s a powerful argument for the acceptance of homosexuality. It’s far better for a gay person to be comfortable with their sexuality than to feel such shame and confusion that they mutilate themselves. This aspect of the Heaven’s Gate ideology also seems to me to be similar to the reason for some families referring their children for treatment as transgender. Opponents of the contemporary transgender movement have claimed that the majority of children referred to clinics like the Tavistock Clinic come from extremely homophobic backgrounds. They’ve argued that they’re seen as transgender by their parents, who have convinced the children of this, because it’s the only way the parents can cope with the child’s sexuality. They can’t accept that their son or daughter is gay, and prefer to believe that they have instead been born in the wrong body. Gay critics of the trans movement and their allies thus see the transitioning of such vulnerable children as a form of gay conversion therapy. That’s certainly how Iran views it. Homosexuality is illegal there, carrying the death penalty. However, gender reassignment surgery is paid for by the state. I got the impression that Iranians gays were offered the choice between death and having a sex change.

The cult’s description of themselves as an ‘Away Team’ was taken from the Star Trek series, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space 9 then on television. The ‘Away Team’ were what had been called in the Original Series the ‘landing party’ – the group that would beam down from the Enterprise to explore that episode’s planet. One of the cult’s members and victims was the brother of actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura in the Original Series and subsequent films.

Their belief that the world was about to be visited by an alien spaceship was the unfortunate consequence of a misidentification of a known star by a pair of German amateur astronomers. They had been out looking for a comet that was due to come close to Earth. They found it, but with it was an object they couldn’t find on their star maps. They therefore went on the web to inquire what it might be, and the myth developed that it was some kind of alien spacecraft many times bigger than Earth, which was following said comet. Of course, it was no such thing. It was a star that didn’t appear on the maps the pair were using because it was too dim to be visible to the naked eye. It was, however, bright enough for them to see it using binoculars. The Cult’s leaders took the appearance of this supposed alien spacecraft to be the spaceship they had long expected to take them all to a higher plane with tragic consequences. Although the world was shocked by this disaster and the cult’s apparently weird beliefs, folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand pointed out that their idea of being taken to heaven in a ship actually came from a strand of American Christianity. There have been a number of hymns written describing Christian believers going to heaven in just such a vessel.

The trailer for the series also says that the cult’s members were intelligent and came from good families. I don’t doubt this. I’ve heard that members of new religious movements are often of above average intelligence. Perhaps it’s because such people are more intellectually curious and less satisfied with conventional religion. However, it also seems, at least according to the Fortean Times article, that many of the cult’s members also had problems functioning independently. They apparently were always contacting somebody to help them solve ordinary, every day problems like how to peel an apple correctly. I wonder if they suffered from a psychological or neurological condition like autism, which left them unable to cope with ordinary life and so vulnerable to being dominated by a charismatic personality with a message that appeared to solve all their problems.

The series looks like a fascinating insight into one of the decade’s apocalyptic, extreme religions with its roots in the UFO milieu. However, the series will be over by now, and if it was on HBO Max, it’s doubtful that very many people will have seen it. But perhaps it’ll be repeated sometime on one of the more popular TV channels. And I hope that events and the landscape of religious and paranormal belief have changed in the meantime, so that there will never be another tragedy like it.

The Young Turks on Republican Willingness to Kill Families of Terrorists

December 23, 2015

This is another fascinating piece from The Young Turks showing the brutality and thuggishness in the Republican candidates Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz. I’ve already put up a piece by the Turks on the Gallup poll that shows fewer Muslims in Muslim majority countries support the killing of civilians – 14% – than in Britain and America – 33% and 50% respectively. This section of the debate amongst the Republican candidates shows just how far we in the West are losing the moral high ground.

The Turks on commenting on the candidates’ answer to a question whether they would support the deliberate killing of the families of terrorists. If they did, would this not violate the international treaty demanding that civilians should not be targeted in war. Rather than take a decent, moral position that they would not target the terrorists’ families, Trump, Carson and Cruz nearly fall over each other stressing their willingness to murder non-combatants. Trump starts ranting about how we need to be ‘firm’ with them, and makes entirely spurious comments about how the mother of two Islamist killers in San Bernardino must have known what they were doing. Carson seems to believe killing civilians is a necessary evil, and compares it to removing a tumour from a child’s brain. At first the child is resentful about having his head opened up, but afterwards they’re grateful. And Cruz doesn’t seem to know the difference between targeted bombing and carpet bombing. Here’s the clip:

Now the Turks are exactly right when they state that this is the mentality of the mob, and Islamist butchers like al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS. They are also right when they state that it contradicts the teachings of Christ in the New Testament. They are absolutely right. Apart from the teachings of Christ, St. Paul himself states in his letters that Christians are not supposed to compete in evil with the wicked. So we are definitely not supposed to sink to their level. It was medieval theologians in the Roman Catholic West who formulated the modern rule of justice that the families of criminals should not be punished for the crimes of their relatives if the other family members themselves were innocent. The rule of collective guilt, that the families of criminals should be punished along with the criminals themselves, was revived by the non- and actively anti-Christian regimes of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Hitler revived it on the grounds that it supposedly came from ancient Germanic law. And Stalin revived it because he was an amoral thug and butcher. In his case, it supposedly comes from the tribal and clan warfare practised in the Caucasus. Either way, it’s a step backwards. Trump, Carson and Cruz’s support for lumping the families of terrorists in with them put them on exactly the same level as the North Korean regime and its persecution of Christians. Under the latest Kim, not only are Christians themselves arrested and executed in North Korea, but also their parents and grandparents, even if they’re atheists. Trump, Carson and Cruz have got the same vicious totalitarian mindset.

As for the willingness to prosecute war ruthlessly, without concern over civilians deaths being somehow Churchillian, this neglects how controversial Britain’s carpet bombing of Germany is, particularly in the case of Dresden. Dresden was hit so hard that the whole city was just about razed in the fireball. Many of the victims died without a mark on their bodies, suffocated because the fireball consumed all the breathable oxygen. Kurt Vonnegut, the satirical writer, was so profoundly affected by his experience of it as a prisoner of war near the city at the time, that it coloured his entire worldview, inspiring such novels as Slaughterhouse 5. The novel’s title is a reference to the abbatoir in which he and the other American POWs were incarcerated. Ironically, it was this that saved them.

The bombing of Dresden has become a stain on the Alllied conduct of the War. And while modern Germans are pleased that Hitler and the Nazis defeated, and their country liberated to become one of the most prosperous and democratic in Europe, they aren’t pleased about the destruction of Dresden. Far from it. One German playwright in the 1960s wrote a play about it, arguing that it showed Churchill as a war criminal, because Dresden at the time was not a centre of military operations. The bombing took place apparently purely as an act of terror.

There was intense controversy under John Major’s government back in the 1990s when the Tories decided to put up a statue commemorating ‘Bomber’ Harris, the head of the British airforce, who launched the carpet bombing of Germany. Many liberals in Britain felt it was entirely inappropriate to celebrate a man, who had deliberately caused so many civilian deaths. And the carpet bombing of Germany, the deliberate bombing of civilian areas, was controversial at the time. One Anglican churchman, a bishop, if I recall properly, resigned in protest. It’s probably this action by a man of faith and conscience that provided the inspiration for a Christian priest in the 1980s Dr Who serial, ‘The Curse of Fenric’. Played by the veteran actor and panel show host, Nicholas Parsons, the priest is a man, who has lost his faith thanks to his nation deciding to kill civilians in bombing raids. It clearly seems to have been inspired by the example of the real clergyman.

Interestingly, this churchman remains an inspirational figure to at least one, highly independent member of the British Christian Right: Peter Hitchens. Hitchens has some bizarre and vile views. He believes – wrongly – that Britain shouldn’t have entered the Second World War. But he is also an opponent of the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. His reasoning here seems to be that these latter wars have sent good, brave men to die unnecessarily simply for the political advantage of the man he terms ‘the Blair creature’. So, contrary to Carson, Churchill’s bombing of civilians isn’t the action of a great war leader that Carson seems to think it is.

I differ with the Turks’ comments about the Repug candidates’ advocacy of killing terrorists’ families being part of the psyche of fundamentalist Christians. A little while ago a Jewish researcher published a book on theologically conservative Christians. He found that conservative religious views did not necessarily coincide with Conservative political views. In fact, he found that about half of Evangelical Christians were politically liberal, and tended to be more so than American Roman Catholics. See the book The Truth about Evangelical Christians. The Turks themselves have also noted that in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, people who make their religion the centre of their life, whether Christians, Muslims or whatever, tend to be far less in favour of attacking civilians. In the case of America, the willingness to kill civilians as well as terrorists seems to be due to other, shared cultural factors common to both people of faith and secular people.

Young Turks: Terrorists More Motivated by Politics than Religion, Study Finds

December 15, 2015

This is another video from The Young Turks, which is extremely relevant as it takes apart the view that terrorists and suicide bombers are motivated solely or mainly by religion. Robert Pape, a professor at the University of Chicago, and the founder of that university’s Centre for Security and Faith, studied the motives of suicide bombers and other terrorists going back to 1980. He found that in 95 per cent of cases they were far more motivated by politics, and particularly the desire to retaliation after a military intervention, often a military occupation. The attacks were an attempt to take or retake territory that was important to the terrorist. This was the dominant motivation for terror attacks, including the recent massacres in Paris.

Uygur and Iadarola point out that suicide bombing are the tactics adopted by the losing sides. America doesn’t use suicide bombers, because it has the advantage of drones, tanks and aircraft. The Japanese also turned to using suicide tactics in World War II – the Kamikaze pilots – when they were losing, not when they thought they were winning, as at Pearl Harbour. The same is true of other organisations using suicide bombers, like the Tamil Tigers.

They also make the case that while religion is part of it, like Christian fundamentalists, who hate gay people, this is more of a case of someone looking for and adopting a worldview, that confirms their existing beliefs. They also cite Lydia Wilson, a journalist for The Nation, who also interviewed ISIS terrorists. She found that they had a ‘woeful knowledge’ of even the basic tenets of Islam, and had difficulty answering questions about sharia law, jihad, or even the caliphate. But such knowledge wasn’t necessary to support the ideal of fighting for the caliphate. As could be seen from the actions of one British ISIS fighter, who ordered ‘Islam for Dummies’ on Amazon.

The Turks compare their ignorance of Islam with that of Dear, the right-wing fundamentalist Christian, who shot staff and patients in an attack on Planned Parenthood. They also point out that terrorist attacks and suicide bombings have been carried out by secular organisations and individuals. The Turks also point out that military intervention is not necessarily a bad thing. The Korean War succeeded in keeping South Korea free of Stalinism, and World War II was, obviously, a military intervention, that was exactly the right thing to do. Suicide and terrorist attacks do not necessarily make the original military action wrong. They’re just something to be expected as a consequence.

This report sounds pretty much spot on, from what I understand about terrorism. Bassam Tibi, the German-Egyptian writer on Islam and the problems it is experiencing through modernisation, states in his book Islam and the Cultural Accommodation of Social Change states that the Egyptian Islamist terrorist he personally interviewed in Egypt had only a superficial understanding of Islam. A few years ago, the anthropologist Scott Atran also pointed out that violence and terrorism were not solely the product of religion. He pointed out that the organisation that had made the most use of suicide bombings was the Tamil Tigers, who were secular organisation. Atran himself is an atheist, and he made this point as a rebuttal to the claims that religion was mainly responsible for such violence by members of the New Atheism, like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.

A~s for reading one’s own political views into a particular religion or holy book, that’s always been a problem. It’s called ‘elective affinity’, and sociologists of religion have acknowledged and studied its importance. One example I was taught at College was the declaration by a 19th century British Tory that ‘the Bible is Conservative through and through’. It’s a classic example of the way a person with strong political opinions believed he had found them in his holy book through projecting his own prejudices and opinions onto the text.

As for the political motivations of many terrorists, there’s an interesting review of a book on the Lobster site by Carol Shaye, one of the officials involved in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Shaye has since become extremely cynical about the whole process because of the massive corruption at all levels of Hamid Karzai’s regime. She found that the Taliban fighters she interviewed almost exclusively joined because they felt it was a solution to this problem.
Of course, the Taliban isn’t. It is, however, a brutal and murderous collection of genocidal maniacs and mass-murderers. But the point remains.

BBC 2 On Why Britain Voted Against Churchill after WW II

May 25, 2015

BBC 2 at 9.00 O’clock tonight is showing a documentary on how Britain rejected Churchill for the Labour party in the 1945 general election.

The blurbs for it in the Radio Times state

Surprise election results are nothing new. As this documentary explores, a few weeks after celebrating VE Day in 1945, Britons went to the polls for the first general election in a decade. The Conservatives were widely expected to win, a grateful nation rewarding Winston Churchill’s wartime leadership. Instead, Labour won by a landslide and set about creating the Socialist welfare system Churchill had warned against.

As historians relate, there were good reasons the electorate delivered a humiliating snub to their wartime hero. And we’ve forgotten how unpopular he was with sections of the public: striking footage shows crowds jeering a perplexed Churchill at Walthamstow stadium. “Most people saw him as a Boris Johnson-type figure,” claims one contributor. “A buffoon.”

And

Just weeks after VE Day, Winston Churchill went to the polls confident that the nation would reward him for his leadership through the dark days of the Second World War and re-elect him prime minister. In the event, he suffered a humiliating defeat by Labour under Clement Atlee. Historians including Max Hastings, Juliet Gardiner and Antony Beevor explore what prompted the nation to reject its great war leader in such vehement fashion.

This will no doubt annoy the Churchill family, who have been effectively living off the great man’s legacy since the War. They got very stroppy a few months ago with Paxo, for daring to state that Churchill was not some kind omniscient, super competent superman.

In fact, Churchill was and still is bitterly despised by certain sections of the working class, despite his status as the great hero of World War II. His own career in the armed forces effectively ended with the debacles of the battle of Jutland and he was widely blamed for Gallipolli. He fervently hated the trade unions and anything that smacked of socialism and the welfare state. Originally a Liberal, he crossed the floor to join the Tories when Balfour’s government introduced pensions and state medical insurance based on the model of contemporary Germany. ‘It was Socialism by the backdoor’, he spluttered.

This continued after the War, when he fiercely attacked Labour’s plan to set up the NHS and unemployment benefit. Because the latter meant that the state become involved in the payment of NI contributions by the employer, he denounced it as a ‘Gestapo for England.’

He is widely credited with sending in the army to shoot down striking miners in Newport. According to the historians I’ve read, he didn’t. Nevertheless, this is still widely believed. It’s credible, because Churchill did have an extremely aggressive and intolerant attitude towards strikes. During the 1924 General Strike he embarrassed the Tory administration by stating that the armed forces would stand ready to assist the civil authorities, if they were called to do so. This effectively meant that he was ready to send the troops in. When it was suggested that he could be found a position in the Post Office, the then Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, readily agreed on the grounds that it would keep him out of the way. The hope was that without Churchill’s militant intransigence, the Strike could be settled peacefully.

And despite the mythology of the country uniting under a common foe during the War years, there was still considerable working class disaffection. Indeed, according to one programme, there were more strikes during the War than hitherto. I don’t find this remotely surprising, given that the sheer requirements of running a war economy meant rationing, shortages and, I’ve no doubt, the introduction of strict labour discipline.

Nor was Churchill a particularly staunch supporter of democracy and opponent of Fascism. Orwell wrote in one of his newspaper pieces that the spectre of war was doing strange things, like making Churchill run around pretending to be a democrat. According to the historian of British Fascism, Martin Pugh, Churchill was an authoritarian, who actually quite liked Franco and his brutal suppression of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. His opposition to the Nazis came not from a desire to defend democracy from tyranny – in that respect, Eden was a far better and more convinced anti-Fascist – but from the fear that a re-armed and militarised Germany would be a danger to British power and commercial shipping in the North Sea and the Baltic. He did, however, have the decency to consider privately that Mussolini was ‘a swine’, and was not impressed when the Duce declared that his Black Shirts were ‘like your Black and Tans’ when he visited Fascist Italy.

The British working class therefore had every reason to reject Churchill and his reactionary views after the War. And scepticism towards Churchill and his legacy was not confined merely to the working class. Nearly two decades later in the 1960s Private Eye satirised him as ‘the greatest dying Englishman’, and attacked him for betraying every cause he joined. Churchill was all for a united Europe, for example, a fact that might surprise some supporters of UKIP. He just didn’t want Britain to join it.

Even now there are those on the Right, who still resent him. Peter Hitchens, the arch-Tory columnist for the Daily Mail, has frequently attacked Churchill for bringing Britain into the War. His reason for this seems to be his belief that if we hadn’t gone to War against the Axis, we’d still have an Empire by now. This is moot, at best. Writing in the 1930s about a review of Black soldiers in Algiers or Morocco, Orwell stated that what was on the mind of every one of the White officers observing them was the thought ‘How long can we go on fooling these people?’ Orwell came to Socialism through his anti-imperialism, and so represents a particularly radical point of view. Nevertheless, he wasn’t the only one. When the British authorities set up the various commercial and industrial structures to exploit Uganda and the mineral wealth of east Africa, Lord Lugard cynically stated that they now had all the infrastructure in place to pillage the country for a few decades before independence. Despite Hitchens’ nostalgia and wishful thinking for the glories of a vanished empire, my guess is that many, perhaps most of the imperial administrators and bureaucrats out there knew it was only a matter of time before the British Empire went the way of Rome and Tyre.

In his book attacking atheism, The Rage Against God, Hitchens also attacks the veneration of Churchill as a kind of ersatz, state-sponsored secular religious cult. It’s an extreme view, but he’s got a point. Sociologists of religion, like Clifford Geertz, have a identified the existence of a ‘civil religion’, alongside more normal, obvious forms of religion, like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism, for example. This civil religion is the complex of beliefs and values that shapes civil society as a whole. In America, this is a belief in democracy, centred around a veneration of the Constitution. In Britain, you can see this complex of beliefs centring around parliament, the Crown, and also the complex of ceremonies commemorating the First and Second World Wars. Including Churchill.

The programme looks like it could be an interesting counterargument to the myth of Churchill as the consummate politician, the great champion of British freedom and democracy. He deserves every respect for his staunch opposition to the Nazis, regardless of the precise reason for doing so, and his A History of the English-Speaking Peoples is one of the main texts that have created the belief that the British are uniquely freedom-loving. Nevertheless, he was also deeply flawed with some deeply despicable authoritarian attitudes. AS the blurbs for the programme point out, the British were quite right to vote him out at the post-War elections.

Conservatives Lose a Third of their Support from Evangelical Christians

February 23, 2015

The Huffington Post has this story Christian Support For Conservatives Drops By A Third, Evangelical Alliance Report Says. It reports that forty per cent of British Christians are changing their electoral allegiance. It begins

Conservative support among Christians has dropped by a third since the last election, in new research that will lend weight to the Tories allegations of a left-wing allegiance in the Church.

Almost 40% of Christians surveyed by the Evangelical Alliance said they intended to change who they vote for in this election, and both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have seen significant drops in support from a community where almost double the national average intend to vote.

The Faith in Politics? report follows a survey of 2,020 evangelical Christians, conducted by the Evangelical Alliance between August and September 2014, shows that poverty and inequality is the single most important issue for evangelicals, compared to only 4% of the general population saying the same.

The article states that this will lead to fresh accusations about left-wing bias in the churches after the Anglican bishops’ 52 page letter to prime minister, which included topics such as the European Union, Trident and welfare. Indeed, Nadine Dorries has attacked the bishops’ letter for its supposed left-wing bias. Christian support for the Greens and UKIP has increased massively, while the Tories have lost a third of their support and the Lib Dems half. The party that now has the largest Christian support is the Labour party, according to the Huff Post.

The articles at http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/02/19/christian-conservatives_n_6712218.html.

This will doubtless enrage the Tories, who have since Thatcher’s administration attacked the archbishop of Canterbury and any other cleric for being ‘left-wing’ whenever they criticised the government since Maggie Thatcher. The Cranmer blog for Conservative Christians, mostly Anglicans, was deliberately set up to muster their support for the Tories.

If this latest attack on the Tories’ attitude to poverty follows previous criticisms from the churches, you can expect the Tories, in addition to moaning about left-wing bias, to start ranting about how the clergy should keep to preaching Christianity, and if they did, their congregations might start going up. That’s the line they used to take under Thatcher.

It isn’t about simply preaching Christianity. It is about living the Christian life, and manifesting Our Lord’s concern for the poor and marginalised.

I am very much aware that some Tories are deeply religious, and give generously to charity. A survey in America found that politically Conservative Christians gave far more to charity than secular liberals. Surveys have also shown that, in contrast to the popular perception of theologically conservative protestants – Evangelical Christians, half of them are left-wing, with many being much more Left than American Roman Catholics.

Part of the change in political attitude amongst British Evangelicals may well come from experience working for charities and especially food banks. Many churches have started collecting food for them. This experience brings you face to face with the poor and starving in Britain today, as the blog Diary of a Foodbank Helper documents.

The Tories, however, have consistently denied that such grinding poverty exists, and, indeed, the need for them at all. A succession of Tory MPs and apparatchiks have opened their yaps to claim that people are only using food banks, because they’re offering free food, not because they’re starving.

This is an egregious lie, as you have to have a chit from the jobcentre stating that you are absolutely poor in order to go to them. Such lies are an effective slap in the face to the people, who give to food banks, and who work there. As a result, many Christians are rightly turning their backs on the Tories and their Lib Dem collaborators, and seeking out other parties with better attitudes to poverty.

Human Fertility and the Problem of the Origin of Religion

June 2, 2013

One of the other arguments I had with the atheists on this blog a few years ago was about the role of human fertility as the origin of religion. According to one atheist, religion evolved so that humans would have more children. It’s easy to see how this idea came about. There are religions that encourage their members to have many children. In the West, Roman Catholicism is the best known example. In the ancient world, including the Bible, people hoped that God or the gods would provide them with many children and as well as abundant crops and livestock. Children and descendants and agricultural fertility were not just benefits, they were absolute necessities as famine and starvation were all too real. One estimate of child mortality in the ancient world at the time of Carthage suggests that 5-6 out of ten children died in infancy. People, tribes and states thus wished to have plenty of children not just to remain wealthy, powerful, with a strong army and an abundant labour forces, but also simply to survive. The Canaanite religion of ancient Syria made the conflict against sterility and death part of its religion. In its mythology, Baal fought a long battle against his adversary, Mot, whose name meant sterility or death.

There are certainly scholars of religion, such as John Bowker, who do consider the encouragement of fertility as the origin, but not the total explanation, of religion. In his article, ‘Religion’ in The oxford Dictionary of World Religions, states ‘Religions are the earliest cultural systems of which we have evidence for theprotection of gene-replication and the nurture of children.’ This is true even of those religions that consider celibacy to be a higher vocation. Boker himself is certainly not uncritical of this explanation. He states clearly that ‘there is much that is clearly wrong’, and has written a book tackling the subject, Is God a Virus? Genes, Culture and Relgion. His view is that genetic inheritance and Darwinian evolution can only explain the emergence of humans capacity for certain activities and behaviours. This accounts why religions frequently share similar features. It does not, however, determine what people do with this biological preparedness.

Religions are also multi-faceted and include a number of different features. This means it is difficult for materialist explanations of religion to reduce its origin and function to any single factor. Early attempts to explain religion materialistically viewed them as attempts by early humans to explain natural phenomena. The sociologist Emile Durkheim believed religion served to organise society and create a vital sense of social solidarity. The view that religion emerged to encourage fertility appears to have been advanced in the 1990s as an attempt by socio-biology and later evolutionary psychology to provide an explanation of religion in accorance with evolutionary biology. This view also has its flaws. Bowker himself was aware that this evolutionary biological theory of the origin of religion was problematic and had its opponents. One of the problems of this view is the role of asceticism in many religions. If religion evolved solely to encourage increased reproduction, it would not explain the ascetism that also forms part of many faiths. Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, for example, have members who withdraw from the world to lead celibate lives. In Christianity this includes the clergy in Roman Catholicism, and the higher clergy in eastern Orthodoxy. Monasticism is a part of both Christianity and Buddhism, while Hinduism has sadhus, yogis and yoginis, ascetics, who pursue their devotions in solitude. The ancient Babylonians also had orders of priestesses, who were required to remain celibate. They were aware of the dangers of overpopulation, and these religious orders, as well as disease, natural disasters and infertility, were viewed as being divinely established to prevent it.

The Atrahasis epic, the earliest flood myth from Mesopotamia, states that the humans were originally created by the gods to do their work for them. Over the centuries humanity increased so that

‘Twelve hundred years had not yet passed
When the land extended and the people multiplied.
The earth was bellowing like a bull,
The gods got distressed with their uproar.’

The gods then attempted to reduce humanity’s numbers with disease, followed by a drought. Humans go on breeding, however, and soon are reduced to starvation and cannibalism. People are forced to eat their children. The gods then send a flood to wipe them out completely, but the god Ea warns, and so saves, Atrahasis. The epic ends with Ea advising the mother-goddess Mami/ Nintu on how the danger of overpopulation is to be avoided in the future through the Malthusian checks of sterility, infant mortality and celibacy. He says to her

‘O Lady of Birth, creatress of the Fates…
Let there be among the people bearing women and barren women,
Let there be among the people a Pahittu-demon,
Let is seize the baby from the mother’s lap,
Establish Ugbabtu priestesses, Entu priestesses and Igisitu-priestesses.
They shall indeed be tabooed, and thus cut-off child-bearing.

Now this awareness and desire to avoid overpopulation is just one aspect of Babylonian religion. Nevertheless it, and asceticism and celibacy in other religions, as well as the incredibly varied nature of religion and religious experience, suggest that while fertility generally remains an important part of religion, it cannot be considered its origin.

Sources

John Bowker, ‘Religion’, in John Bowker, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1997) xv-xxiv.

Anton Jirku, The World of the Bible (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1967)

Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq 3rd edition (London: Penguin 1992).

Communism’s Basis in Atheism

May 30, 2013

A few years ago I got into a long argument with some atheists on here about my assertion that atheism was an integral part of Communism. Marx was influenced by Feuerbach’s view that God was a projection of humanity’s own alienated nature. For Feuerbach and his followers, humanity could improve itself by rediscovering its own creativity through a new ‘religion of humanity’. The atheists contended that atheism was not integral to Marxism by arguing firstly, that Marx wrote little about religion or atheism. Secondly, Marx’s conception of the origin of religion was different from Feuerbach’s. Lastly the connection between atheism and Communism was disproved by the granting of freedom of religion and worship by the Soviet authorities in the last days of Communism under Gorbachev.

Atheism of Marx and Feuerbach

Marx’s own view of atheism was certainly different from Feuerbach’s. Marx took from Feuerbach the idea that religion, and human culture in general, was formed through the material conditions in which people lived. Where they differed is that Feuerbach saw this as affecting only humanity in the abstract, while Marx held that it defined human society and their communities. There’s also a difference in that although Feuerbach was an atheist, he was not an anti-theist. He has even been described as a ‘pious atheist’, as he did not deny religious values.

Influence of Feuerbach on Friedrich Engels

Feuerbach’s influence on Marx’s friend and collaborator, Friedrich Engels, can be seen in Engel’s review of Thomas Carlyle’s 1844 Past and Present, ‘The Condition of England’. One of Engel’s criticisms of the book was that Carlyle failed to realise that the roots of the hollow, rotten state of British culture with its soullessness, irreligion and atheism, lay in religion itself, explicitly following Feuerbach’s critique of religion.
The next five pages are more or less one long rant against religion. This is explicitly anti-Christian:

‘We too attack the hypocrisy of the present Christian state of the world; the struggle against it, our liberation from it and the liberation of the world from it are ultimately our sole occupation’. Again in this section he cites Feuerbach and Bruno Bauer as exposing religion’s true nature. Engels then proceeds to state very clearly that the Communists aim to attack and destroy religion:

‘We want to put an end to atheism, as Carlyle portrays it, by giving back to the man the substance he has lost through religion; not as divine but as human substance, and this whole process of giving back is no more than simply the awakening of self-consciousness. We want to sweep away everything that claims to be supernatural and super-human, and thereby get rid of untruthfulness, for the root of all untruth and lying is the pretension of the human and the nature to be superhuman and supernatural. For that reason we have once and for all declared war on religion and religious ideas and care little whether we are called atheists or anything else’.

The next one and a half pages are an explicit attack on the Christian conception of history and the central position within it of the Lord’s incarnation, again stating Feuerbach’s idea that God is merely humanity’s own projection of its alienated nature. Engels felt that the Christian belief in the incarnation made the 1800 years since Christ’s birth meaningless. In fact the incarnation demonstrates that there isa transcendent meaning to history through the deep involvement in it of a loving God. God’s involvement in history did not end with Christ ascension into heaven. Rather, God remains active in the world, as St. Paul states. In Him we live and move and have our being. He is at work bringing good out of evil until the end of time when the world will be renewed and He will once again dwell with us.

Marx on the Economic Basis of Religion

Marx’s own views on the basis of religion in the economic structure of society is stated in the section ‘The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof’ in volume I of Das Kapital. In it Marx stated that the form of society’s religion depended on its stage of social development. Christianity was suitable for contemporary society and its developed capitalism. The ancient world did not have trading societies except at their margins, and so these ancient societies were based on the worship of nature. This view of the nature of primitive religion is also highly flawed. Both the Phoenicians and their great colony, Cathage, were powerful trading civilisations with outposts all over the Mediterranean. The extent of their mercantile contacts is shown by the fact that objects from ancient Egypt have been found in Spain, where they had been brought through Carthaginian merchants. Archaeologists have discovered how extensive trading networks in Europe were as far back as the Bronze Age. These were not capitalist societies, and Marx was correct in viewing some of them as based on subjection. Nevertheless, trade was widespread and important.

Marxism Based in Atheist Materialism, including that of Ancient Greeks

Marx himself was an atheist materialist while at university, before he adopted Hegelian philosophy. His dissertation was on Democritus and ancient materialism and scepticism, and he always considered his own political philosophy to be a continuation of that tradition. This for Marx himself, Marxism was inherently atheistic. The atheist with whom I was arguing also raised the point that it would be possible to adopt a Communist or socialist economic programme without basing it in atheism. This is true. There have been a number of ‘red priests’, clergy with Communist sympathies, in the various Christian churches, including the Anglican. However, Marxism is based on an exclusively materialist conception of the world: there is no God, therefore reality is defined and determined purely through material processes and natural laws. Human society is no different. Any form of belief in God, or a transcendent reality, such as Spiritualism, directly challenges this fundamental assumption, even if their believers adopt a Communist programme for other, moral reasons. Hence the Communists persecution of religion, and Lenin’s denunciation of his ideological opponents as philosophical Idealists, for the supposed basis of their views in a separate, transcendant realm.

Freedom of Religion in Last Days of Communism due to Pressure from Democracies and Human Rights Groups, not Based in Communism

Finally, there is the issue of Soviet state’s recognition of freedom of worship and conscience under Mikhail Gorbachev. Now Gorbachev was a convinced Communist. Indeed, he has been described as the last Communist, and he continued to beleive in the Communist system even as it crumbled around him. He tried to prevent its finally dissolution for as long as possible. He was, however, a radical reformer of Communism, which he believed was necessary for it to survive. In his book, Perestroika, he claimed to base these reforms in Lenin and the democratic nature of Soviet socialism, declaring that the solution was ‘More socialism, more democracy’. Yet Lenin was extremely autocratic, who persecuted the Orthodox Church. Gorbachev’s claims were therefore not convincing. Furthermore, the Soviet Union had been under immense diplomatic pressure to grant freedom of religious belief and conscience since the 1950s and particular after the foundation of human rights groups in the 1970s, such as Charter 77. The granting of religious freedom was to accommodate these groups, not from any rejection of the materialist basis of Communism itself. Gorbachev himself has made it clear that he is an atheist, but appears to have a sympathetic interest in religion. He has published a book with the Dalai Lama, and has visited and contemplated the Vatican. Regardless of his view of religion, I feel that Gorbachev should be admired simply because it was through his relationship with President Reagan that the Cold War finally ended. By stopping Soviet troops entering the satellites during the Velvet Revolution, Gorbachev secured these nations’ freedom and independence. These countries have suffered greatly during the transition to capitalism and democracy. However, the threat of war with Soviet bloc that hung over three generations since 1917 revolution has been lifted. People are now free to travel to and from the former Soviet countries largely unimpeded, to set up businesses and make friends. And that truly is an awesome achievement and one reason to be cheerful in this often threatening world.

Failure of Communism as Philosophical and Economic System, and Its Brutality

As for Communism, that resulted in monumental alienation, oppression and brutality on a massive scale. Marxism continues to have some intellectual vigour through its view of economics as the motive force of history. As an economic system, it has been largely discredited. Amongst the various explanations of the origin of religion, the views of Feuerbach and Marx are now unfashionable and Hegelianism has also been attacked. Even in the Soviet Union, scientists rejected the Hegelian dialectic of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. As the despair, alcoholism and drug abuse that permeated Soviet society demonstrates, Marxism did not provide its citizens with a sense of meaning, nor did it reconcile them to nature. The massive engineering projects have caused immense ecological damage to vast swathes of the former Soviet Union. The Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe is only one example. In fact the fall of Communism as an atheist system has been remarked on by at least one historian. Looking through one of the bookshops a few weeks ago, I found one history of the Fall of Communism that paid explicit homage to Sigmund Freud’s atheist attack on religion, The Future of an Illusion. This history bore the title The Failure of an Illusion. Despite Marx and Engel’s splenetic denunciations, Communism has been shown to be as, or even more, fallible and illusory as the religions it claimed to supersede and attack.

Sources

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

F. Engels ‘The Condition of England: Review of Past and Present by Thomas Carlyle, in Elisabeth Jay and Richard Jay, Critics of Capitalism: Victorian Reactoins to ‘Political Economy(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1986) 85-95

K. Marx ‘The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof’ in Elisabeth Jay and Richard Jay, ibid, 96-104.

The Church of Atheism

April 4, 2013

Last autumn seemed to be the season for anti-religious religious movements. About October or November 2012 the British broadsheet newspaper, the Independent, covered a service held in an atheist ‘church’ in London. It was set up by two comedians, a man who was a former Jew, and a woman, who had been raised as a Roman Catholic. The service’s venue was a decommissioned church, and much of it seemed to involve ridicule and mockery of religion, except for a section where the congregation was told to shut their eyes, breathe deeply, and think of how special they were. The paper described it as an example of ‘New Age’ type thinking and ritual in a milieu that would otherwise have ridiculed and rejected it. The newspaper reported that the service’s congregation numbered 200, a figure that most mainstream churches would have envied. It noted that the two were considering holding further such services.

Now I was bitterly attacked several years ago on this blog for pointing out how many atheist organisations haved adopted the features of organised religion. Classic examples are the Ethical Churches of the 19th century and the Humanist Society today. The atheist church in London is another example. There isn’t anything new or radical in atheists holding such services to denounce and ridicule religion. Under Lenin and Stalin in the former Soviet Union, churches were closed down and turned into museums of atheism. A fictional version of one of these is described in the novel The Keeper of Antiquities. Outside of the USSR the Surrealists under Andre Breton held a similar service attacking Christianity and specifically Roman Catholicism. A French Roman Catholic newspaper in the 1950s had run a feature on them. Breton responded by published a violent denunciation of the Catholic clergy, ‘To Your Kennels, Curs of God’, in the Surrealist newspaper. The Surrealist also marched out to a ruined church on the outskirts of parish to attend a blasphemous service led by a former Roman Catholic priest.

The atheist church was also an example of a growing trend in which the main spokespeople for organised atheism aren’t philosophers or scientists, which the exception of Daniel C. Dennett, Richard Dawkins and a few others, as comedians or comic actors, like Ricky Gervaise or Stephen Fry. Several of the comedy programmes broadcast by the BBC are aggressively atheist, such as QI under Stephen Fry, Stuart Lee’s series last year and the News Quiz on Radio 4, chaired by Sandi Toksvig. Frank Skinner apparently offended many atheists last year or so by remarking at a comedy event that much contemporary comedy was less about humour as about preaching atheism and attacking religion. This event proved that he was right. It also bears out another comment about the New Atheism, that it was celebrity led.

It also points to something peculiar about the psychology of the congregation of such spoof churches themselves – the need for some church-like organisation to belong to, as well as the desire to mock, insult and decry religious observance and belief. This goes far beyond any definition of atheism as ‘a lack of belief in God’. Most people without any kind of religious belief generally stop worrying about it. They simply stop going to churchm or mosque, synagogue, temple or other religious institution. They may become cynical or embittered, or simply adopt an attitude of complete indifference in which religion is alright for some people, but not for them. They simply are no longer interested in it. This is outright anti-theism, characterised by a need to attack, and form organisations that imitate and mock that which they so despise. It shows an increasingly bitter and polemical comedy industry attempting to adopt a position as aggressively antireligious preachers and moral spokespeople, so subordinating humour with vitriol and polemic.

The Bible, Judaism and Christianity and the Origins of Democracy: Part 2

July 6, 2008

In the first part of this blog post I attempted to describe how, while ancient Israel certainly did not possess the institutions of the modern democratic state, nevertheless the revelation of the Bible established the moral values essential to democracy in the notions of human equality before the Lord, concern for human welfare and opposition to tyranny based on God’s justice. These values were maintained, practised and developed by Talmudic Judaism and Christianity. In this section I’m going to discuss how the early Church further developed these values to form the basis of the modern idea of the democratic state.

Adoption of Roman View of Popular Sovereignty By Early Christianity, but Only Secure Basis for Society God’s Justice and Concern for Humanity

The early Christians also adopted the view of contemporary Roman jurists and political philosophers that laws derived their authority through popular sovereignty. This view was developed particularly by Cicero, Seneca, the Cynics and the Stoics. This viewed the state, and the ability of each individual to participate in politics, as based on the common rationality in humanity and the universe. For the Roman lawyers, society was based on private, autonomous individuals, whose rights had to be respected and to whom justice was due because of their common humanity and rationality, regardless of how they were regarded or held by their fellow citizens, or their own ability to use force to enforce their will on others. 45 The early Church adopted the idea of human society as composed of rational creatures, and that the people were the true source of law. St. Augustine thus wrote in the City of God that ‘a populus is an assemblage of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love; in order to discover the character of any society, we have only to observe what they love.’ 46 For Augustine, however, the most secure basis for society and law was the love of God and the divine command to love one’s neighbour amongst the people, rather than just human rationality itself. Thus St. Augustine declared in the Epistle to Volusianus

‘Here (in Jesus Christ’s summary of the Law and the prophets in the double command to love God and one’s neighbour) is the basis for an admirable commonwealth; for a society can neither be ideally founded nor maintained unless upon the basis and by the bond of faith and strong concord, when the object of love is the universal good which in its highest and truest character is God Himself, and when men love one another with complete sincerity in Him, and the ground of their love for one another is the love of Him from whose eyes they cannot conceal the spirit of their love.’ 47

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Roman Law and its precepts were replaced by customary law, until it was rediscovered by the Church’s canon lawyers in the 12th century. Nevertheless, the Church insisted that kings and princes had a duty to society as a whole through the maintenance of peace and justice, protecting the weak and encouraging and securing love and charity between people. This prepared European society for the revival of the doctrine of popular sovereignty when western European scholars returned to studying Roman Law. 48 The beginning of all Roman legal doctrine from the 12th century onwards was the statement by the Roman lawyer Ulpian, which reached western Europe through Justinian’s Digest, that ‘The prince’s decision has the force of law; inasmuch as by the royal law passed concerning his authority the people has invested him with the whole of its own authority and power.’ 49 Thus the Roman doctrine of popular sovereignty, which became the basis of modern western democracy through the political philosophy of John Locke, was adopted, preserved, and made the basis of western political theory again by Christianity.

Sole Purpose of Authority to Promote Peace and Harmony

Although the early Church recognised that human society required authority, philosophers and theologians such as St. Augustine and Theodoret believed that the sole rightful purpose for such authority was to maintain order and promote harmony and tranquillity. As rulers derived their authority ultimately from God, individuals motivated solely by a desire to rule, rather than promote justice, had no rightful authority. 50 similarly, while the Church itself was hierarchical and stressed obedience to authority, nevertheless it considered that its clergy should rule from a sense of service to the community, rather than a desire for personal power. St. Augustine stated that

‘Those who rule serve those whom they seem to command; for they rule not from a love of power but from a sense of duty – not because they love authority, but because they love mercy.’ 61

Indeed, St. Augustine considered that any member of the clergy who ruled purely from a desire a power had automatically disqualified himself from holding office, as ‘he who loves to govern rather than to do good is no bishop!’ 62

Origin of Separation of Church and State in St. Augustine

St. Augustine further prepared Western society for the separation of church and state that is a part of modern, secular democratic politics. Although the late Roman Empire saw itself very much as a Christian state, in which the church and religious belief and worship were essential institutions and included amongst the secular governmental institutions as a vital aspect of the state, a situation that continued in the new states of the Middle Ages that succeeded the Roman Empire, the early Church distinguished between itself and secular authority. St. Ambrose of Milan in the 4th century in his letters to the emperor Theodosius denied that secular officials had any authority over the Church, whose clergy and property were outside imperial authority.

St. Augustine developed this idea still further in the City of God. While he accepted that society and sovereignty derived from the people, he denied that justice was the ratio, the basis, of the state. 53 As justice derived from God and so lay beyond the state, so humanity’s duty to God superseded their duty to the state. The state may indeed possess and promote justice abundantly, but this was not the essential basis of the state. 54 Indeed, St. Augustine himself had a very negative view of the state. It was only justice that distinguished kingdoms from robbery on a massive scale, and asked ‘for what are robberies but little kingdoms?’ Humans, because of their sinful nature, hated the idea of their equality before God, and so tried to usurp God’s authority by imposing their will on their fellow humans. ‘Sinful man hates the equality of all men under God.’ It was because of his sinful nature that man, ‘as though he were God, loves to impose his own sovereignty upon his fellow men.’ The state existed to protect human society from such tyrants, but was not in itself fundamentally and absolutely just. 55 Furthermore, as states themselves were transient, rising and falling naturally during the course of history, they therefore required the instruction and education of the Church, which was separate from the state and eternal. Thus in the view of the historian Richard Fletcher, by drawing this distinction between church and state, and secular and religious authority St. Augustine ‘detached the state – any state, but in particular, of course, the Roman State – from the Christian community. Under his hands the Roman Empire became theological neutral.’ 56

Church’s Duty to Condemn Oppression, including that of Roman Emperors

Even before St. Augustine, the Church had considered its duty to criticise and punish tyranny and the abuse of power, even when such acts were ordered by the very highest authority, such as the emperor himself. In 390 the emperor Theodosius ordered a massacre of 7,000 citizens assembled at a circus in Thessalonica in reprisal for the murder of a member of the military garrison there. St. Ambrose of Milan strongly condemned the massacre, and in a letter to Theodosius warned him to repent or he would withhold Holy Communion from him. He stated ‘I dare not offer the sacrifice if you intend to be present. Is that which is not allowed after shedding the blood of one innocent person, allowed after shedding the blood of many? I do not think so.’ 57 Theodosius gave in to St. Ambrose’s moral authority, and duly did public penance for the atrocity in Milan cathedral, thus conceding the moral superiority of the Church over the state.

Early Church Doctrine therefore Opposed to Modern Ideas of Totalitarian State

While this prefigured the struggles between Church and state, and popes and emperors to assert their authority and superiority over the other during the Middle Ages, it also directly undermines the concept of the totalitarian state that was fundamental to the Fascist and Communist regimes of the 20th century. These were based on the Hegelian idea that the state represented the highest expression of the forces of history and the divine mind, and so the citizen owed the state his absolute allegiance. The early Church, by making a distinction between Church and state, and declaring that the state was not fundamentally just and that it was subordinate to God and the Church, directly contradicted and attacked the idea of such absolute states.

Membership of Early Church Open to Everyone, Regardless of Gender, Wealth or Nationality

The early Church also differed from contemporary Roman society in that it was open to all members of society, regardless of social rank and gender. In secular Roman society, philosophy and the Gnostic religions, including Gnostic Christianity, were largely confined to leisured aristocrats, while the Mystery religions similarly confined their membership to the initiated. Catholic Christianity, however, was open to anyone who wished to join it and share in the knowledge and worship of Christ. Arnobius Afer stated Christianity’s universal mission to all humanity in the words:

‘Does not He (Jesus Christ) free all alike who invites all alike: or does He thrust back or repel any one from the kindness of the Supreme who gives to all alike the power of coming to Him-to men of high rank, to the meanest slaves, to women, to boys? To all, he says, the fountain of life is open, and no one is hindered or kept back from drinking.’ 58 While pagan opponents of Christianity such as Celsus viewed it with contempt because the Church’s members came from the lower sections of Roman society without a formal education, Christian apologists such as Athenagoras considered it to be a positive aspect of Christianity, that it included people from such sections of society, who lived exemplary lives despite their lack of a formal education. Athenagoras stated

‘Among us (the Christians) you will find uneducated persons, and artisans, and old women, who, if they are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds exhibit the benefit arising from the persuasion of its truth: they do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works; when struck, they do not strike again; when robbed they do not go to the law; they give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbours as themselves.’ 59

The early Church’s concern and mission to all sections of Roman society also led it to criticise the restriction of philosophy and intellectual activity to the aristocratic elites. For theologians and apologists such as Clement of Alexandria, everyone had the right to study the Gospel and philosophy, regardless of their social rank, gender or race:

‘Both slave and free must equally philosophise, whether male or female in sex … whether barbarian, Greek, slave, whether an old man, or a boy, or a woman … And we must admit that the same nature exists in every race, and the same virtue.’60

Advocacy of Freedom of Conscience in Early Church

As well as declaring that every person was capable of receiving the Gospel and so should have the freedom to join the Church, early Christian apologists, such as Tertullian, Lactantius and Hilary of Poitiers also argued for freedom of conscience in their criticisms of their persecution by the Roman state. The Church itself became increasingly repressive of rival faiths and controlled intellectual activity after its establishment as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, these arguments were revived during the Reformation by religious writers, theologians and politicians such as William Penn to create the religious tolerance that eventually resulted in the freedom of conscience that is a fundamental part of modern democratic liberty. 61

Furthermore, although the Church later did much to suppress individual freedom, it also did much to introduce the individual, subject view of the individual into political debate and discussion. In the ancient world, the wellbeing of the individual was frequently identified with that of society as a whole, with the effect that there was little discussion of the freedom of the individual as an ideal, rather than a political reality. However, Christianity introduced the idea of the importance of the individual through the doctrine of the fundamental sanctity of every human life. This was further developed in Western philosophy by the introduction by St. Augustine of the ‘first-person standpoint’ as a fundamental feature of the search for truth according to the historian Charles Taylor. 62 This concern for the subjective, first-person view is demonstrated most clearly by Augustine in his autobiography, The Confessions.

Election of Bishops in Early Christianity

The early Church was also democratic in that originally the bishops were elected by the whole of the Christian community of each diocese, both clergy and laypeople. 63 Cyprian states that this was the practice in almost all the provinces of the Roman Empire in the second century AD. 64 The idea and practice of popular suffrage, through which the people of a diocese could directly choose their bishop, was taken from general Roman electoral practice, such as in the election of secular magistrates. Jews similarly had adopted such electoral practices in the election of synagogue officials. Nevertheless, the Church differed from pagan society in that women and slaves also had a right to vote. 65 Eventually, however, the direct election of bishops declined along with secular democracy. There was opposition to it within the Church by leading members of the clergy, such as Origen. Origen criticised it for the bribery, corruption and factionalism in contemporary popular Episcopal elections that resulted in the appointment of unsuitable candidates who were more interested in power and the financial advantages rather than scholarship and truly ministering to the spiritual needs of their congregation. As a result of such electoral corruption, bishops were succeeded by their brothers or sons. 66 The gradual abolition of the direct election of bishops by the people helped to prevent the post becoming hereditary, and so allowed individuals from other sections of society, such as peasants, to be appointed to the post. 67

The election of the clergy by the congregation returned in Western Christianity with the establishment of the orders of pastors, doctors, elders and deacons by Jean Calvin in the Reformed Church, modelled on what he considered to be the governmental structure of the early Church as found in Scripture. This was remarkably democratic in that these clergy were elected, rather than appointed to office. 68 Although the practise of electing officials was confined to the Church, rather than recommended for society as a whole, nevertheless it was a major contribution to the emergence of democracy in Europe through the notion that ordinary Christians could elect their clergy, who then had the power to criticise the moral failings of their social superiors.

Early Church not Democratic, also Responsible for Intolerance and Oppression, but also Shares Common Democratic Values

The early Church’s conception of society as a family meant that it did not develop an idea of the complete freedom of the individual similar to that in modern political theory. Instead, the early Church viewed individual freedom as limited by the demands and requirements of the wider society of the Church, and the claims of others upon the individual’s love and service. As human liberty was also limited by the divine origin of authority, the Church and European society generally could become extremely repressive with the individual possessing very little freedom. 69 Indeed, the early Church was certainly not a democracy. It accepted the inequalities in wider Roman society, even slavery. 70 Historians have particularly criticised the early Church for its intolerance, and suppression and persecution of different faiths and minorities, such as heretics and Jews. 71 Nevertheless, despite the fact that the early Church was not democratic, historians have argued that it was concerned with all the same fundamental values of democracy, and creating a vital, existential frame of reference within which it was possible to achieve human happiness. 72

Christianity and democracy, it has been argued, are both based on the idea of objectively true, moral values. They both demand that freedom should be limited in the interests of equality and the general welfare of the community, and that equality should similarly be limited in the interests of social harmony and efficiency. They are also opposed to the fragmentation of human society produced by, for example, imperialism, racism, statism, provincialism and class warfare. Both Christianity and democracy also demand that humans be treated as ends in themselves, and not simply as means. In their view that the proper end of human conduct and effort should be the welfare of humanity, both Christianity and democracy are concerned with ordinary people and ‘the disinherited, and submerged groups in every society’. 73

Christianity and Democracy Both Opposed to Totalitarianism and Oppression

The early Church scholar, Albert C. Outler of Duke University, speaking at a conference of American academics, scholars and politicians from science, philosophy, the humanities, arts and Jewish and Christian religions in 1940 concerned with defending democracy from attack from Nazism, Fascism and Communism, declared that Christianity and democracy would remain separate. However, both Christianity and democracy had a strong interest in the international situation, and so in his view had much to offer each other. Indeed he concluded that democracy needed the support of religion, just as religion needed the support of democracy.

‘I do not see how a democratic order can be achieved or remain uncorrupted without a religious undergirding; I do not doubt that democratic order is the best political means to the end of a religious community. The cross-fertilization which a vital Christianity and a genuine democracy could achieve would greatly aid the cause of humanity and serve the Kingdom of God in this generation.’ 74

Fundamental Democratic Values derived from Bible and Hebrew-Christian Tradition, which Opposes Oppression and Tyranny

This concern with the fundamental values that are the basis of democracy is also shared with Judaism. It is derived from the witness of the Bible to God’s love and concern for humanity and the equal value of everyone, regardless of their race, sex or economic status, before the Lord. The Biblical scholar Millar Burrows, speaking at the 1940 conference attempting to combat the totalitarian attack on democracy, stated that the Bible’s respect for people’s rights and personalities, their common, human nature regardless of differences in gender, race and social rank, and the social responsibilities people have towards their fellows and to society as a whole, rather than in the development of specific societal, industrial or political institutions, were ‘the indispensable basis spiritual basis for a true and enduring democracy.’ 75 For Millar the Hebrew-Christian tradition’s great contribution to democracy lay in ‘its fundamental conception of the nature of man and of his relation to his Maker and to his fellow-man.’ 76 This concern is encapsulated in the Lord’s summary of the Mosaic Law linking one’s duty to love the Lord with one’s whole person and one’s neighbour as oneself. For Millar, the Hebrew-Christian conception of humanity and its relationship to God and its fellow people had made it the absolute opponent of tyrants throughout history, and made its continued presence in human history and society a threat to tyrannical regimes that they sought to eradicate.

‘It is this that has made the Old and New Testaments the deathless foes of all dictators in all subsequent ages. The righteous God of the Bible towers so far above all earthly powers that none of them counts for anything in His presence. The humblest man is equal to the mightiest prince before God. Moses can defy Pharaoh, Nathan can rebuke David, Elijah can challenge Ahab, Jeremiah can oppose Jehoiakim, the humble Maccabees can brave the terrible anger of the Macedonian despot. In the presence of the living God of Israel right always outweighs might. Tyranny can never tolerate the cultivation of the Hebrew-Christian tradition.’ 77

Conclusion: Democracy Recent, Created Partly through Biblical and Christian View of Society Based on God’s Justice and Concern for Humanity, which Still Provides Powerful Support for Democratic Politics

While democratic political and social institutions have taken millennia to emerge, they were created in part through the attempts of philosophers, theologians and ordinary men and women to establish a society based on the Biblical concern for a truly just society, based on God’s concern for humanity, their value as individuals, and their responsibilities to each other. This conception of a society based on God’s justice and humans’ responsibilities to the Lord and each other inspired prophets and saints to criticise, condemn and oppose tyrants, and from the Middle Ages onwards led people to attempt to create political institutions to restrain tyranny and promote freedom, a goal that eventually resulted in the emergence of political democracy in the West. Democracy is separate from Christianity, but linked to it through the fundamental concern of justice and humanity that are common to both, so that Christianity, although it has also supported tyrants, is also, and continues to be a vital source of support for democracy itself.

Notes

  1. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 453.
  2. St. Augustine, City of God, XIX:24, cited in Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 454.
  3. St. Augustine, Epistle to Volusianus 137:17, cited in Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 454.
  4. Edouard Meynial, ‘Roman Law’, in C.G. Crump and E.F. Jacob, The Legacy of the Middle Ages (Oxford, Clarendon 1926), p. 384.
  5. Edouard Meynial, ‘Roman Law’, in C.G. Crump and E.F. Jacob, The Legacy of the Middle Ages (Oxford, Clarendon 1926), p. 385.
  6. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 460.
  7. St. Augustine, City of God, XIX, xiv, cited in Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 467.
  8. St. Augustine, City of God, XIX, xiv, cited in Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 467.
  9. E.F. Jacob, ‘Political Thought’, in Crump and Jacob, Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 512.
  10. E.F. Jacob, ‘Political Thought’, in Crump and Jacob, Legacy of the Middle Ages, p. 512.
  11. St. Augustine, cited in Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett, Christianity on Trial: Arguments against Anti-Religious Bigotry (San Francisco, Encounter Books 2002), p. 13.
  12. Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity (New York, H. Holt & Co, 1998), p. 29, cited in Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 13.
  13. St. Ambrose of Milan, cited in Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 10.
  14. Arnobius Afer, Against the Heathen, in Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 462.
  15. Athenagoras, ‘A Plea for the Christians’ xi, in Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 461.
  16. Clement of Alexandria in Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p.2.
  17. Tertullian, cited in William Penn, Liberty of Conscience, in William Penn: The Peace of Europe, the Fruits of Solitude and other Writings, ed. Edwin B. Bronner (London, J.M Dent 1993), p. 179; Lactantius and Hilary, against Auxentius, cited in Penn, Liberty of Conscience, in Penn, Peace of Europe, ed. Bronner, p. 182.
  18. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Makings of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press 1989), pp. 131-33, cited in Carroll and Shiflett, Christianity on Trial, p. 14.
  19. Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (London, Penguin 1964), p. 299.
  20. Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians in the Mediterranean World from the Second Century Ad to the Conversion of Constantine (London, Penguin 506).
  21. Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, p. 508.
  22. Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, p. 511.
  23. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 467.
  24. G.R. Elton, Reformation Europe 1517-1559 (London, Fontana 1963), pp. 226, 227.
  25. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 459.
  26. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 458.
  27. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 465-7.
  28. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 469-70.
  29. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 470.
  30. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 470.
  31. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition, Old and New Testaments’, in in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 412.
  32. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition, Old and New Testaments’, in in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 412.
  33. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition, Old and New Testaments’, in in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 412.

Judaism, Christianity and the Origins of Democracy: Part 1

July 6, 2008

Undoubtedly the greatest achievement of modern western political theory was the emergence of democracy in late 18th and 19th century America and Europe. In many respects the idea is certainly not new. States governed by a council of elders, rather than a single individual invested with absolute monarchical authority had existed as far back as prehistoric Mesopotamia. 1 Constitutional and political historians have traditionally regarded ancient Greece and Rome as the foundations of democracy through the development of the idea of the social contract by the Greek Sophist philosopher Lycophron in the 5th century BC, and in particularly the establishment of democracy in Athens through the constitutional reforms of Solon, Cleisthenes, Pericles and Ephialtes from the early sixth to mid-fifth centuries BC. 2 Ancient Rome had begun its career as an independent, expansionist state after the expulsion of the Etruscan dynasty of the Tarquins and the foundation of the Roman Republic in 510 BC. A series of political and military conflicts between the Roman aristocracy, the patricians, and the non-noble plebeians from the first decade of the fifth century to 300 BC created the classic Roman republican constitution that granted political power to Rome’s non-aristocratic population. 3 Even after the fall of the Republic and the establishment of the Empire, some Roman officials continued to be elected. Outside Rome, other nations also had a republican government. The Saxons in Germany in the 8th century AD were governed not by a king, but through a popular assembly that met annually, composed of an equal number of nobles, freemen and bondsmen. 4

Modern Democracy Different from Historic Conception of the State

These states were not, however, democracies in the modern sense. In all of them political power was confined only to men who possessed a sufficient amount of property. Women and slaves were excluded from voting in the popular assemblies. In ancient Athens, only those whose parents were both Athenians were considered full citizens and so eligible to vote and hold public office. Even in revolutionary France, which established democracy in Europe as a radical, revolutionary force, there was a distinction between active and passive citizens. Only men who possessed a certain amount of wealth were considered to be capable of political responsibility. They were viewed as active citizens, who could vote and be a candidate in the elections. The rest of the population, women, and men, who did not possess sufficient property to qualify for active political involvement, were viewed as passive citizens who, while possessing certain rights could not participate directly in politics. Democracy in the modern, contemporary sense of every adult man and woman having the vote and being able to elect their governmental representatives and stand for public office is very, very recent indeed. British women, for example, were only finally able to vote in elections in the 1920s. Nevertheless, it is democracy in this sense that has become the definitive view of political freedom in Europe, compared to that of earlier centuries that considered freedom to be the amount of personal freedom individuals and groups had to manage their affairs within the limits of a strongly hierarchical society under the authority of a strong, but wise monarch.

Modern Democracy Founded on Ancient Constitutional Theory Adopted by Christian Scholars

Contemporary democratic political theory has been strongly influenced and moulded by Jean-Jacques Rouseau, whose theories of the Social Contract informed the French Revolutionaries, J.S. Mill and Alexis de Toqueville and his observations on democracy in America. Despite this, the foundations of modern democracy and notions of popular sovereignty were established by Christian and Jewish scholars in ancient Rome and medieval and 16th and 17th century Europe. Christian philosophers and theologians like St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Locke and countless others adopted ancient Roman constitutional theory to produce ideas of popular sovereignty and the rights of the individual within a constitutional state. John Locke in particular created modern, liberal political theory, which established the right of the individual to participate in politics and choose his representatives in an elected assembly.

Ancient Israel Theocracy with Concern to Limit Power of Monarch and Preserve God’s Justice and Human Freedom

Religious scholars have noted that democracy in the modern sense is certainly not found in the Bible. As Yale University professor Millar Burrows noted, ‘if by democracy we mean “government of the people by the people and for the people,” in the form of majority rule by the ballot, then the Bible knows nothing of it.’ 5 The ancient Hebrew ideal government was theocracy, not democracy. 6 The Mosaic Law was promulgated by the Lord Himself, and was not the product of human deliberation, so that the great assemblies of the nation of Israel that were called at various points in Israel’s history to ratify the Covenant were there to indicate that Israel had accepted it through acclamation, not to produce it directly themselves. 7 However, the monarchy was never completely accepted as the natural and inevitable form of God’s government of Israel. 8 Before the establishment of the monarchy, such as during the period of the Judges, Israelite society was based on the tribes and clans. When the Israelites needed a leader to protect and organise them an external enemy or settle disputes between tribes, they frequently chose humble individuals like Ehud, Barak, or Gideon, or an outsider, such as Jephthah. Their first king, Saul, was a member of one of the smallest clans of Benjamin, the smallest tribe. 9 The Judges ruled only for as long as the crisis that caused their election lasted and they were able to retain their followers.

10 Indeed, there was considerable opposition to the establishment of a monarchy. In Judges 8:23 Gideon refused to be elected a king in place of the direct rule of Israel by the Lord. 11 Deuteronomy 17:15 –20 contains a series of provisions limiting the power of future Israelite monarchs and providing for their observance of the Law. Only an Israelite could be king. He could not breed horses, nor acquire them from Egypt. He was not to have a number of wives, nor amass too much wealth. He was also required to write out for himself a copy of the Law so that he would be guided by it. When the Israelites appealed to the prophet Samuel to appoint a king for them, he initially refused, describing the oppression they would suffer under such a monarchy in 1 Samuel 8: 11-18. 12 Similarly, prophets such as Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah denounced injustices committed by kings and princes, as well as the rest of Israelite society. 1 Kings 25 records how Elijah vehemently denounced king Ahab for his unjust acquisition of Naboth’s vineyard after Naboth’s death, another incident which showed how ordinary people were protected by the prophets against an unjust and oppressive king. 13 The establishment of the priestly state under the Persian Empire has been viewed as a far more democratic form of government than the Israelite monarchy, as the lack of any army and reliance on public taxation required that the authorities co-operate with the people, with the ‘Great Synagogue’ playing an important role in this process of government, rather than enforce their power militarily. When the independent Maccabean state was established, secular rulers were also included in the governing councils of the priests under the authority of the hereditary Maccabean prince, who possessed the title ‘high priest and head of the commonwealth of the Jews’. 14

Ancient Israel Not Democracy, but Recognised Value of the Individual, including Ordinary People and those from the Lower Sections of Society

However, political decline and conflict during the last period of the Hasmonean kingdom, and Israel’s conquest and annexation by Rome prevented the emergence or development of any kind of democratic institutions. Thus, while ancient Israelite society was far more democratic than the other contemporary nations of Egypt, Assyria, and even the Greeks with the exception of the Athenian republic, political democracy as a particular form of government or collection of institutions does not occur in the Bible. 15 The Bible does, however, possess a strong conviction of the value and rights of all individuals, from the king to the poorest peasant, which forms the basis for the idea of each individual possessing equal rights and opportunities that is one of the major foundations of the democratic ideal in society that supports political democracy. 16 Ancient Israelite society certainly was not democratic. The Mosaic Law permitted slavery and provided for the different treatment of slaves according to whether they were Hebrew or foreign. Nevertheless, the period of servitude for Hebrew slaves was limited to six years, after which they were to be freed. The Law stipulated that slaves had to be treated kindly and strictly limited their punishment. 17

Despite these inequalities in wealth and status, the ancient Biblical ideal was for everyone to live secure and free from oppression enjoying their own property. Micah 4:4 predicts that, during the reign of peace and justice established throughout the world by the Lord, every man will sit under his vine fig tree and no-one will make them afraid. 18 Ordinary people, artisans and labourers, enjoyed a respect in ancient Israel that did not occur elsewhere in the ancient world. In the Apocrypha, Ecclesiasticus 38:24-34 describes the work of ploughmen, carpenters, seal-engravers, smiths, and potters, noting that although they don’t have the leisure to acquire the necessary learning in the Law to act as judges and official councillors, nevertheless they were skilled and intelligent in their work. It is through the labour and handiwork of such workers and artisans that cities were made habitable and the whole world supported and maintained. Thus ancient Israel recognised the dignity of manual work, as well as the proper respect due to those who properly studied and applied the Law, and the necessity of such workers to the prosperity, and indeed very existence, of civilised society.

Condemnation of Economic Exploitation as well as Political Oppression in the Bible

The prophets were therefore concerned to preserve justice not just by denouncing political corruption and oppression, but also the exploitation and oppression of the poor by the wealthy. The prophet Amos in the 8th century BC is particularly important for his denunciation of the injustice and exploitation of contemporary Israelite society. He stated very clearly that the worship of God was completely opposed to the exploitation of other people. 19 Amos 2:6 records God’s statement that He will not turn aside from punishing Israel for selling the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes. 20 Isaiah pronounced woe upon those who joined house to house and laid field to field, so that they were alone in the middle of the Earth, thus depriving the poor of their ancestral lands in order to build up vast estates. 21 Nehemiah 5 records how the population of Israel after the Persian invasion had been forced by previous corrupt and oppressive governors to sell their lands, vineyards and house, and their own children into slavery, to buy food during a famine pay their tribute. Nehemiah was so furious that he summoned his nobles and rulers to a public assembly and forced them to restore the property they had unjustly acquired to its proper owners. 22

The Bible also strongly condemns the exploitation of wage labourers. Leviticus 19:13 states that a hired labourer should have his wages paid promptly and not to be delayed overnight. Job 31: 13-15 records Job’s protest that he did not treat his servants and their concerns with contempt, and his recognition that the same God who formed him also created them. Similarly, in Malachi 3:5 God promises to punish those that deprived hired workers of their due wages, and oppressed widow, orphans and sojourners, as well as adulterers, sorcerers and perjurers. 23 The Bible also insists on just treatment and care for resident foreigners, for example as in Deuteronomy 10:19. This provision in the Law commanded the Jews to love the foreigner, because they were foreigners in Egypt. God declares in Isaiah 56:6-7 that the sons of foreigner who have joined Israel and keep the Lord’s Sabbath and Covenant will be considered true servants of the Lord. God will give them joy when they worship in the Temple, which will be a house of prayer for all people. God send Jonah to urge the people of Nineveh to repent and so avoid destruction, despite the fact that they weren’t Jews, while Ruth, one of the ancestors of King David, came from Moab to join Israel. Biblical scholars have thus considered ancient Israel to be remarkable not for the feeling of national superiority and separation from other nations, but for its view of the unity of humanity and concern for the other nations of the world. 24

Recognition of the Role of Women and their Rights in Ancient Israel

Women in ancient Israel were also recognised as possessing rights and a role in society, even though their social position was subordinate to men. Genesis 1: 27 declares that God created humanity, both male and female, in His own image, thus providing a spiritual basis for equality between men and women. 25 Despite their inferior position, women nevertheless were recognised as playing an important economic and charitable role. Proverbs 31:10-31, which, with the rest of the chapter, was a prophecy given to King Lemuel by his mother, praises the model, virtuous woman who buys and plants vineyards, manufactures clothes, provides food for her household and dispense charity to the poor and needy. Women also played a part in religious worship. Exodus 38:8 describes them as assembling outside the Tabernacle, and 1 Samuel 2:22 similarly mentions them assembling outside the shrine at Shechem. Ezra 2:65 notes the presence of 200 male and singers amongst the staff of the priests. Women could also, at times, hold religious and political power. Moses’ elder sister, Miriam, was a prophetess who led the Israelite women in celebratory music and dancing after their successful crossing of the Red Sea and escape from Pharoah in Exodus 15:20-1. Judges 4-5 describes how the prophetess Deborah, the wife of Lapidoth, with Barak as her lieutenant, dispensed justice in Israel and saved them from Sisera, the captain of Jabin, one of the Canaanite kings.

Ancient Israel Not Democracy, but with Strong Sense of Human Value and Equality, and Concern for Democratic Electoral Processes in the Talmud

Thus, although the Old Testament does not command or describe democracy in the modern sense, it does, through its concern for the whole of humanity, such as the poor, women and resident aliens, as well as the rich and powerful, provide a powerful basis for democracy. The Old Testament’s support for democracy is particularly demonstrated in the constitutional limits placed on the power of the monarchy in the Mosaic Law and its denunciation of exploitation, oppression and injustice. This concern for justice and the equality of all humans before the Lord continued into Christianity, while Talmudic Judaism also further commented on and developed these aspects of the Law to provide Judaism with a popular, democratic character as well as an origin in divine revelation.

This concern for justice and equality extended into all areas of Jewish life so that rich and poor alike were to receive equal treatment before the law, and humane legislation and institutions established to protect the welfare of women and slaves, and maintain justice in the conduct of court cases. Tosefta Sanhedrin 8:4 in the Talmud declared that God created all life from a single ancestor to prevent the various families of humanity claiming superiority over each other through descent from a superior ancestor. Everyone, including saints and sinners, were equal members of the human family through their descent from Adam. 26 Berakot 17a states powerfully that everyone is equally a creature of God, regardless of whether they work in the city or the field. Both types of people rise early to do their work, and no-one can excel in somebody’s else’s job. It did not matter how much or how little a person did, as long as they were fulfilling God’s purpose. 27 The Jewish people during the period of the compilation of the Talmud were governed by a system of town councils. Each town council comprised seven members, who were elected into their office by their community. Everyone, who had been resident in the town for a year or more, had the right to vote in these elections. In the case of particularly important issues, a meeting of the whole town would be called so that the issue would be solved by popular decision rather than be decided solely by the councillors. Some important officials, however, were directly appointed by the head of the Jewish people, such as the Patriarch in Palestine or the Exilarch in Babylon. 28 Nevertheless, the Talmud considered that legislation could only be valid if it was accepted by the majority of the community. 29

Concern for Human Equality in Christ, the Poor and those outside Respectable Society in Christianity

This democratic concern for all members of society, regardless of their social status, continued into Christianity. Christ Himself famously condemned the wealthy and powerful for not paying attention to the suffering of the poor, and directed his missions towards those who were outside the boundaries of respectable Jewish society, such as publicans and tax collectors. The universalist aspect of Judaism, in which other nations would join the Jews in worshipping God, was extended so that national distinctions between the Jews and other peoples were abolished. Similarly men and women were both considered equal before God. St. Paul declared in Galatians 3:28 that in Christ there was neither Jew nor Greek, nor male or female, as everyone was one in Christ. Thus Biblical scholars have stated that ‘Nowhere in the Bible is there any basis for social or political discrimination between men on the basis of colour or land of origin.’ 30 St. Paul’s statement that both men and women were equal in Christ is strongly similar to the statement in Genesis that men and women were both made in God’s image. St. Paul also noted and was very appreciative of the women, as well as men, working in the early Christian community, and their considerable efforts to support the community and the message of the Gospel. In Romans 16:1-4 St. Paul specifically recommends Phebe, Priscilla and Aquila to the church in Rome because of the great support Phebe had given him and other early Christians, while Priscilla and Aquila had risked their necks for him. Although slavery was retained, and slaves urged to work hard and honour their masters, their masters were also required to treat their slaves with justice and equality, as they also had a master in heaven, as St. Paul commanded in Colossians 3:22 and Colossians 4:1.

Early Christianity’s View of Itself as International Community

The Early Christian Church also developed a number of constitutional theories analysing and explaining the nature of the state based on the Bible’s view of the nature and proper attitude Christians should have towards both secular and religious authority, Graeco-Roman political philosophy and the Church’s awareness of itself as an international community, which took its morals from the Lord rather than human philosophical speculation and whose ultimate loyalty was not to any earthly kingdom, but to God. The early Christian apologetic work, the Epistle to Diognetus, dated to c. 120-200 AD, states that Christians are an international community who follow the different manners and customs of the various nations whose citizens they are, and whose members have accepted Christianity, while also considering themselves foreigners and outside of such earthly kingdoms in the passage:

‘The difference between Christians and the rest of mankind is not a matter of nationality, or language, or customs. Christians do not live apart in separate cities of their own, speak any special dialect, nor practise any eccentric way of life. The doctrine they profess is not the invention of busy human minds and brains, nor are they, like some adherents of this or that school of human thought. They pass their lives in whatever township – Greek or foreign – each man’s life has determined; and conform to ordinary local usage in their clothing, diet, and other habits. Nevertheless, the organisation of their community does exhibit some features that are remarkable, and even surprising. For instance, though they are residents at home in their own countries, their behaviour is more like transients; they take their full part as citizens, but they also submit to anything an everything as if they were aliens. For them, any foreign country is a motherland, and any motherland is a foreign country.’ 31

View of Early Christian Church that It Was Separate from State, but Accepted Secular Authority

Other early Christian writers and apologists, such as Minucius Felix, Origen and St. Augustine, also shared this view that Christianity formed a separate community, independent of transitory secular states such as the Roman Empire. Minucius Felix in his Octavius of c. 200 AD stressed that Christians were indifferent to the history and state of the Roman Empire as they were the true leaven of human society. 32 Origen himself described Christianity as a type of fatherland independent of the Roman state. 33 They also considered, however, that the secular authorities were also divinely appointed and were loyal citizens of the Roman Empire. 34 St. Paul in Romans 13:1 expressly stated that Christians should obey the secular authorities, as they received their power from the Almighty in the words ‘Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.’ Justin Martyr, following Christ’s command to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, stated that Christians were loyal to the Roman emperors in his apologetic work, The Defence and Explanation of Christian Faith and Practice in the words ‘The Lord said, ‘Pay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, to God what belongs to God.’ Therefore we render worship to God alone, but in all other things we gladly obey you, acknowledging you as kings and rulers of earth, and praying that in you the royal power may be found combined with wisdom and prudence.’ 35

View of Early Church that Christian Morality Based on God and so Better and More Complete than Secular Roman Morality

The early Christian Church therefore considered that its morals and rules came directly from God’s will and His rule in the world. 36 Early Christian writers and theologians, such as Tertullian, considered secular Roman ideas of morality to be incomplete through its source in human speculation and unable to inspire the necessary respect that produces real morality. Tertullian in his Apology therefore criticised Roman secular philosophical morality with the statement that

‘Uprightness (innocentiam) we have been taught; we know it perfectly because it has been revealed by a perfect teacher (magistro); faithfully we do the will (mandata) of one who reads the heart and cannot be despised. It was but man’s opinion (aestimatio) that gave you your idea of uprightness and human authority which backs it up. Hence your rule of life is neither complete nor does it inspire the reverence which leads o a life of real virtue.’ 37

Christianity Separate from State, but Christians Serve All Humanity through Church

Pagan opponents of Christianity, such as Celsus, accused Christians of not having any sense of social responsibility, and that they were therefore anarchists. Origen countered this accusation with the statement that Christians are primarily loyal and responsible to another society beyond the Roman Empire, and that it was through the church that they channelled their unreserved and unceasing service to the whole of humanity. 38

Christian Conception of Society Based on the Model of the Family

Thus the early Church viewed itself as based on the transcendental morality revealed by the Lord and so required to implement these values in practice, rather than produce a philosophical experiment in the ‘abundant life’. The early church developed a view of itself as a community based very much on the family. The Lord was humanity’s father, and its members were brothers and sisters. Thus, the church was truly God’s family, composed of people from different nations, but together forming a new people, the true Israel. For Christian philosophers and theologians such as St. Augustine, the good family was the pattern for the construction of a stable society. 39 Indeed, the whole human race was a family due to its descent from Adam and Eve, and the whole of humanity was considered equal in nature. No part of the human race was considered super- or subhuman. 40 Moreover, although humans were God’s creation, they were also intended by the Almighty for communion with Him in His image. 41 Thus, all humans possessed dignity and value as members of the single human race, made in the image of God.

All Humans Equal in Church Despite Differences in Economic Status and Social Rank

The early Church also possessed a notion of human equality based on the corruption of humanity as a whole by sin. St. Paul had stated that ‘all men have sinned, and all have fallen short of God’s glory’. As every member of the human race was sinner, no-one therefore was sufficiently morally good to rule others simply by virtue of their moral character. There were indeed differences between people, with some individuals possessing superior status, spiritual gifts or wealth within the church. Like St. Paul, Clement of Rome similarly likened the body of the church to an army and the human body. Nevertheless the presence of each individual, whatever their position, was equally important to the continued functioning of the Church and its performance of the will of God, and every individual thus deserved to have their welfare and interests protected and supported by the others because of interdependence of all the individual members of the Church as part of it as a whole. Clement of Rome, considering the example of the ranks of the Roman army, declared that ‘Not all of them are marshals, generals, colonels, captains, or the like; nevertheless, each at his own level executes the orders of the emperor and the military chiefs. For the great cannot exist without the small, nor the small without the great.’ 42 In the Church, each member was expected to respect the greater spiritual gifts of others, while supporting the poorer members of the Church. In turn the poorer members of the Church were expected to respect the wealthy people who supported them. Clement stated this moral interdependence of rich and poor with the worlds

‘In Christ Jesus, then, let this corporate body of ours be likewise maintained intact, with each of us giving way to his neighbour in proportion to our spiritual gifts. The strong are not to ignore the weak, and the weak are to respect the strong. Rich men should provide for the poor and the poor should thank God for giving them somebody to supply their wants.’ 43 Irenaeus similarly argued that human equality did not mean that humans were did not differ from each other at all, but that the differences between them were only relative, and so were no basis for tyranny by the few over the many. 44

Thus, although Ancient Israel was not a democratic society, the Bible demands the moral values – rejection of tyranny, and concern for the whole of humanity, who are all regarded as equal before the Lord – that are fundamental to democracy. These democratic values were practised and developed by Talmudic Judaism and Christianity, which created the basis of the modern conception of the democratic state. In the second part of this post, I’ll describe how early Christianity adopted and modified Roman ideas of popular sovereignty, condemned oppression and the abuse of power, and advocated freedom of conscience, and how these ideas, based in Christianity, Judaism and the Bible, continue to support democracy against totalitarianism and oppression.

Notes

  1. Lewis Mumford, The City in History (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1961), p. 29.
  2. Hermann Kinder and Werner Hilgemann, trans. Ernest A. Menze, The Penguin Atlas of World History: Vol 1: From the Beginning to the French Revolution (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1978), pp. 55-9.
  3. Kinder and Hilgemann, trans. Menze, Atlas of World History, pp. 73-77.
  4. Orrin W. Robinson, Old English and its Closest Relatives: A Survey of the Earliest Germanic Languages (London, Routledge 1992), p. 105.
  5. Millar Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition; Old and New Testaments in Lyman Bryson and Louis Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion: Second Symposium (New York, Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion in their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life, 1942), p. 399.
  6. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 400.
  7. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 399.
  8. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 401.
  9. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 402.
  10. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 402.
  11. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 402.
  12. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 403.
  13. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 404.
  14. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 404.
  15. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Chrisian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, pp. 402, 406.
  16. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein’, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 406.
  17. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein’, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, pp. 409-10.
  18. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein’, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 409.
  19. ‘Amos’ in ‘Biblical Glossary’, Christopher Cook, ed., Pears Cyclopedia 1986-7: 95th Edition (London, Pelham Books 1986), p. S5.
  20. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein’, eds, Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 408.
  21. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein’, eds, Science, Philosophy and Religion, pp. 408-9.
  22. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein’, eds, Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 409.
  23. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein’, eds, Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 410.
  24. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein’; eds, Science, Philosophy and Religion, pp. 410-1.
  25. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein’, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, pp. 411-2.
  26. Ben Zion Bokser, ‘Democratic Aspirations in Talmudic Judaism’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 382.
  27. Ben Zion Bokser, ‘Democratic Aspirations in Talmudic Judaism’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 382.
  28. Ben Zion Bokser, ‘Democratic Aspirations in Talmudic Judaism’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 388.
  29. 29. Ben Zion Bokser, ‘Democratic Aspirations in Talmudic Judaism’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 387.
  30. Burrows, ‘Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 409.
  31. ‘The Epistle to Diognetus’ in Maxwell Staniforth, ed. Andrew Louth, Early Christian Writings (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1987), pp. 144-5.
  32. Albert C. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’ in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 449.
  33. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’ in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 450.
  34. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’ in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 450.
  35. Justinus (Justin Martyr), Apologia I, xvii, in Henry Bettenson, ed. and trans., The Early Christian Fathers: A Selection from the Writings of the Fathers rom St. Clement of Rome to St. Athanasius (Oxford, OUP 1956), pp. 59-60.
  36. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’ in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 450.
  37. Tertullian, Apology, chapter xlv, in Outler, ‘The Patristic Chistian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 451.
  38. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 451.
  39. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 452.
  40. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 456.
  41. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 456.
  42. Clement of Rome, ‘The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians’, verse 37, in Staniforth and Louth, Early Christian Writings, p. 38.
  43. Clement of Rome, ‘The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians’, verse 38, in Staniforth and Louth, Early Christian Writings, p. 38.
  44. Outler, ‘The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy’, in Bryson and Finkelstein, eds., Science, Philosophy and Religion, p. 457.