The Origins of Religion


  1. Prelude
We aim at two issues with this article. First of all; we want to build up our discussion on why atheists should take communists seriously. We believe that a marxist explanation of concepts such as “human nature”, “morality”, “ethics” etc. would be inspiring in resolving the confusions that occasionally arise in atheist circles. This is our first aim.

For an unprepared reader, it would be surprising to see Joel Kovel starting his book The Enemy of Nature with a comparison of Marx and Darwin. It is due to a very elegant approach that a book, which offers a frame of class struggles for the ecological crisis, reserves its introductory chapters to Darwin. And this brings us to our second aim: We believe that a discussion on the origins and the development of religions can be employed to exemplify the materialist worldview.
In accordance with its aims, this article will be rather abstract. Yet, with the awareness of the fact that we will not present any ideas that were not available up till now, we will choose to abstract from examples rather than providing a theoretical presentation.
  1. Why was Marx fascinated by The Origins of Species and why did he send a copy of Capital to Darwin?
Marx points out an objective phenomenon when he states that capitalism revolutionizes the forces of production and will sweep all other relations of production. Also, Darwin declares the results of his research and not a situation he likes or prefers, when he puts forward the natural selection thesis. The scientific analyses of these persons do not prove that they fancy the results: That Darwin observes wasps place their larvae inside caterpillars in order to eat them alive does not mean that he enjoyed it. Likewise, it would be absurd to claim that Marx rejoiced to note the commodification of everything in the world.
The scientific propositions of both Marx and Darwin explain how the past came through to the present, and not how the future will be. As they are not psychics but scientists, they analyzed parts of innumerable parameters on which the knowledge of future rests. Neither would Darwin explicitly assert which species would evolve in the next million years, nor would Marx say which type of government would be adopted in a given century.
We open up a parenthesis here. A scientific claim does not prophesize, but by definition makes predictions about the future. This future can be, as in the case of physics, an event to be observed in the future, or, as in the case of history, a document to be discovered in the future. We hope it is clear that the above paragraphs are not meant in this sense.
Furthermore, the comprehension of the laws that brought the past to today enables to produce hypothetical scenarios of the future. It is a reasonable consideration to estimate (with some margin of error) which genetic features would disappear under given climatic and geographical conditions. Similarly, one does not need to wait until the 20th century and see with one’s eyes to understand that capitalism would eradicate the Asiatic type of production. We close the parenthesis.
Marx and Darwin were searching for the laws driving the processes. However it was only Marx who could see the parallelism between the two scientific analyses. While he sent a copy of Capitalto Darwin with this excitement, Darwin put the book aside without reading it.1

Yet Marx was right: While Darwin was investigating the formation of the species, Marx was investigating societies.2The theory of evolution described how the genetic code which is more suitable to given conditions survived through natural selection, whereas historical materialism explained how a society established superiority over others by adopting more progressive relations of production.

  1. The question of the origins of religions
To think that the question of how religions emerged would clarify the issue of religions is as ridiculous as supposing that one could predict which species would arise by knowing why a certain mutation took place.
Hundreds of thousands of new ideas emerge everyday in the world. There are thousands of messiah and prophet candidates available. We do not even count the new-age religions.
The point is not how an idea has initially emerged; the point is how an idea, once emerged, has survived throughout history. An idea can survive only if, in the given period of history, it offers a structure capable of eliminating its disbelievers.
It is not a coincidence that both Moses and the Catholic Empire have come through ideologies that aim to increase the population.3
When Moses defines the family as a norm and oppresses any homosexual experience, and when the Roman Empire declares every sperm sacred, the societies that adopt these ideologies gained an advantage over the other societies around. Human reproduction becoming such a hype, and the cognition of sex and reproduction as one and the same thing are due to this historical process.4
  1. Intermezzo: The question of ethics
Let us not miss the opportunity here, to touch upon one of the subjects that is thought to sweat atheists. As all other social phenomena, from esthetics to languages, morality and ethics are historical as well. It is understandable that, in the philosophy of ethics, a distinction between morality and ethics was made; yet this situation led to a delusion among some atheists in the direction that we would be able to establish an ethics excluded from the society and history. Of course we can get outside the generally accepted ethical realm built by the rulers, but humans cannot go out of historicity. All human production (including opposing views) lies within history. The question is to understand how a certain view gained validity throughout history.
All moral questions, from finishing the food on your plate to not killing human beings, are results of the historical selection we mentioned in the first section. New moral statements, on the other hand, will gain as much validity as they survive this historical process.
Let us now focus on heterosexism, as it is a particularly delicate subject. Independent of our fancies, mechanization created the potential of the production becoming independent of concrete human presence. Yet this potential cannot be actually realized within capitalism (or more generally, in class societies): Machines do not produce surplus value. In a system based on exploitation, human has to be the primary element of production.
On the other hand, societies took action to utilize this liberation potential of mechanization for humane use. Large masses of people demanded the just distribution of wealth that came out. Owing to the rights gained in these struggles, production and power has become partiallyindependent of population; that is, having more population began not to directly imply being more powerful. In proportion to this independence, superstructure institutions, such as family, have dissolved.5
Thus appeared the objective possibility of humanity freeing itself from the elements of alienation such as sexism and heterosexism. The rights gained by years-long struggles of militant activists should be seen in this frame; and not in that sexism were dogmatically “bad” and activists finally convinced other people to this argument. We are now fighting to abolish an element of alienation which we discovered at a certain period of the development of the means of production.
Now it would be beneficial to recall the parallelism between Marx and Darwin we suggested in the first section. Understanding the relation between the emergence of an idea and how it is widely accepted among the society is similar to understanding the relation between how a particular gene emerges and how it attains a place in the gene pool of a species. The legitimacy of an idea is not measured dogmatically and in abstract terms, but with its effect in the real world. Homosexuality is not abnormal because it is abnormal; homosexuality is abnormal because those who claim that it is have seized the power.
  1. Human nature
Historicity is the key to understand humankind. The distinguishing characteristic of humankind among other species is that it has history; that the activities of previous generations shape the nature of future generations. Human individuals confront a social phenomenon that is extrinsic to them and that imposes itself to them. They produce on the production of past generations. Humankind has a history. Animals do not.6This is the defining property of human species.7

Therefore, the question of what constitutes “human nature” is beyond the limits of biology proper. Moreover, as Richard Dawkins rediscovered through memetics, it is sometimes outside of biology proper. Dawkins especially exemplifies this by referring to diseases that need extensive care beginning from birth. If it were left to purely biological and genetical dynamics, such diseases should have disappeared from human species, as the diseased individuals would perish in natural ways. Yet societies have found numerous ways to deal with these situations, and they secured not only that the patients survive but also that they are capable of having babies in a healthy way, whereby transferring the relevant genetic code to future generations. Dawkins argues that in this example, the memetic code overrules the genetic code. The framework we summarized in this essay fits well into this explanation and further clarifies the laws of selection for “the memetic code” – namely, the development of the means of production.
What we wanted to emphasize here are that the “human nature” is changing way too fast compared to the biological evolution scales and that it by definition depends on time and space.
  1. Epilogue
Let us briefly summarize our claim: To understand religion, it is unnecessary to understand how the idea of religion initially emerged. The question is how religion survived throughout generations, and this is an eminently materialistic question.
The survival of supernatural views and institutionalized religion is hidden in the fact that they reshaped and stretched themselves in all necessary ways in order to further develop the means of production. We gave instances of this in the preceding sections. These instances were, of course, not aimed at given an ultimate explanation about the roots of religions, but at exemplifying the attempt to understand religions, as historical phenomena, within history and the laws governing it.
In today’s world (as a matter of fact, since at least two centuries), religion has no historical excuse anymore. Now, religion forms an obstacle in front of the development of the means of production and in front of humans creativity. The search for supernatural answers is regressive exactly in this sense of the word. (We addressed this subject in our previous article: “An introduction to why atheists should take communists seriously”)
A species that searches the causes of the floods and droughts all around the world which are becoming more frequent and intense in the moral degradation instead of climate change is bound for extinction – taking hundreds of thousands of other species with it. A species that, based on the argument “They have it; ergo8, we should have it too.”, produces nuclear weapons, potent to destroy all life on earth several times, and makes them the plaything of arbitrariness in the bargains of the ruling class, is indeed bound for extinction – taking hundreds of thousands of other species with it.
Richard Dawkins would say that the human species needs a dramatic change in the memetic code. Among friends, we call it the communist revolution.

1   As the great majority of the pages of Darwin’s copy were found to be uncut, we deduce that he did not read Capital which Marx sent to him personally. (see Marx of Respect, Friends of Darwin)
2   “Just as Darwin discovered the law of development or organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history.” (Friedrich Engels’s Speech at the Grave of Karl Marx)
3   We hope that the evolutionist inside you would warn you: Moses or the Roman Empire may or may not know that population plays a crucial to strengthen power and to develop the means of production. Independent of whether this suggestion was made consciously, these ideas had objectively come to power.
4   We find it worth mentioning that, in textbooks of history, the extensive historical analysis on nationalism is passed over when it comes to religion. Yet we believe that the understanding of nationalism, which we are able to analyze thoroughly thanks to numerous data and documentation, would clarify many issues on the nature of religions.
5   We should make a remark here. We do not claim that family has dissolved. We claim that family has dissolved as much as the link between population and power has weakened. We describe the measure of this to be roughly as human labor going out of commodity production. It is a truism that today there is a reverse trend to this. What we want to emphasize is the parallelism between this historical process and the development of the morality institutions that have a dialectical relationship with it.
6   A comprehensive analysis of this topic is available in Turkish in this link: Yusuf Zamir – Yabancılaşmış Faaliyet
7   What one should observe here is that our definition is empirical. That means, this definition is not based on our personal taste but on the reality.
8   therefore
Ege M. Diren

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