How are religions made?

It is almost two years ago that I started this blog, and I started, with deliberate intent, with Feuerbach. Referring to his Philosophy of the Future, I articulated my conviction that philosophy should come out of the ivory tower and concern itself with the global problems that face us humans and our fellow earthlings. Mentioning the common prejudice about Feuerbach of writing religion off in a simplistic manner, I suggested to come back to that topic some other time. Now is that time. And there are two reasons for it. One is the confusion, around the world, on so-called ‘islamic’ terrorism. The wars for self-rule of certain islamic groups are mistaken by many as a direct expression of their religion, which in its turn is understood in an essentialist manner. The other reason is that we discussed, recently, in our Africana philosophy reading group, Faith of our Fathers, by Mumia Abu Jamal. In this book, the writer researches the history of spiritual life of those who were taken as slaves from Africa to the Americas and their descendants. In so doing he takes a Feuerbachian approach to religion – seeing it as something constructed by humans to give expression to their desires in an idealized and transcendentalized way.

Feuerbach critiqued Christian religion as it was prominent in his day from a humanist and a socialist perspective. This we see when he wrote in lecture XXX of his Lectures on the Essence of Religion: ‘Christians call it blasphemous or inhuman to deny the existence of a hereafter and so deprive the unfortunate, the wretched of this earth, of their one consolation, the hope of a better world to come. Herein, they still believe, lies the moral significance of the hereafter, its unity with the divine; for without a hereafter there would be no retribution, no justice, no reparation in heaven for the misery of those who suffer on earth, or at least of those who suffer through no fault of their own.’ The hope for a better life after this one for the poor and the oppressed is a false lead in the eyes of Feuerbach, for it detours the belief in the possibility of a good life here and now, which is what people actually desire. Not riches and luxury, but just the necessities to live a human life, necessities which are withheld from many. In such a situation, where religion detracts the poor from their normal desires, Feuerbach sees ‘atheism [as] positive and affirmative; it gives back to nature and mankind the dignity of which theism has despoiled them; it restores life to nature and mankind, which theism had drained of their best powers.’

In the work of Abu Jamal, we see a different outcome, however, of a similar critique of religion. He describes how the slaves of African descent in the Americas, who were forced or enticed to convert to Christianity, saw it as inauthentic. To them it was the religion of their cruel white owners, who used it as a means to subdue them not only corporally and emotionally, but also spiritually. Still, Abu Jamal describes, those who did convert, made their own variety of it, as well as they rediscovered/invented their own versions of islam. Characteristic of these new, African-American religions is that they intimately connect the concepts of spiritual release and this-worldly freedom. Religious speech of freedom and salvation in heaven for the slave was just a means to cover up and justify cruelty. So the new religions of the slaves and their descendants combine worship with engagement for change towards a more just society. This goes also for small initiatives like the ‘natural’ religion of John Africa, which combines a love for nature with a rejection of industrial capitalism. Just one citation of this little known prophet: ‘You see, air is the necessity of God, but pollution is the accessory of civilization ’cause industry is an excess of life.’

When Abu Jamal writes that ‘no religious system exists in a vacuum [as it is] by its very nature, a carrier of culture’ we are reminded of the ideas of Feuerbach. And also in his words that ‘spiritual projections of what is seen as the greatest conceivable good become culturally crystallized as heaven, while most horrific visions find expressions as Hell’. Still there is a – slight, but significant – difference. Feuerbach was convinced that established religion would – in modern times – better be replaced by a humanistic and engaged philosophy. So that the human race could come of age and take responsibility for its own desires and their projections. Abu Jamal, who wrote his book in the isolation of his prison cell sees religions as cultural creations, but as creations that answer to the injustices of the world. He would not want to know better than the ‘poor’, who create and invent these religions, but recognizes the many different expressions the longing for deepest notions of the good must take – these expressions are ways of taking responsibility.

Now I have to return to my point about ‘islamic’ terrorism – and will show how the above analyses can help to fight confusion. The quotation marks not only aim to signify that terrorism that claims to be religious shows inauthenticity – like the false Christianity of the slave masters. They also indicate that we should not understand ‘islam’ as an unambiguous signifier. There are many (greatly differing) islamic traditions, like there are many versions of Christianity, Buddhism, etcetera. According to our writers, religions are not only cultural carriers, and therefore adapted to different localities and ethnicities – they are also creations and projections of human beings trying to express their desire for the highest good. It doesn’t make sense to debunk them as ‘unenlightened’ projections. It helps to see them as elements in the struggle of human beings to express their longing for a real freedom and a real good life. As difficult as it is to create, together, a world with that kind of freedom and goodness, one can as well maintain that the object of our longing is transcendent, promised by the One who is beyond our world. This should not mean that human beings should honestly maintain that the realization of that object can be postponed to the beyond. It should still be done here and now. Making war can not be part of the effort, therefore, for destroying happiness and peace in actual lives is creating parts of hell here and now.

  1. onesis said:

    I’ve been reading your words carefully, as I always try to do, because they are the careful words of a careful thinker.

    There are two sides to the question of religion, and one is the side of the question, and the other is the side of the religion. One is questioning and the other is dogmatic. The religious side, typically, even positions itself as a dogma, which is a system of beliefs to be held without question, whether that has been written down or remains in oral form to be transmitted by elders and prophetic voices. The questioning side not only questions; it has to resist the force of dogma in order to remain as a question.

    The question for me as your reader is this. On what side is Angela writing from?

    At the beginning, discussing Feuerbach, this side promotes the question of the basis of religion, in suggesting that religion only has authenticity in a desire for a higher good, one that cannot be obtained by religious means, or means that promote a transcendental order of things, but can only be obtained by an involvement with the here and now. In this proposal promoted by Feuerbach the original question is transduced into a desire for social action. The question remains the question, but one now extracted from the original dogma: where shall we find the highest good available to us now?

    Then in discussing African religion, this other side proposes (or I take it as this) that one should not presume to know better than the poor. As you wrote concerning Abu Jamal “He would not want to know better than the ‘poor’, who create and invent these religions”. However what you are promoting here, is not the religions of the poor, but their status of being poor providing a clearly authentic perspective on these matters.

    The synthesis of the two perspectives, that of critique a la Feuerbach, and that of the poor, the religious poor, I think you are making an effort to create a socially mindful version of religion, where the One is sought on an immanent plane, one that is no longer religious, but spiritual.

    My response, because these sort of thoughts are with me also, is that nevertheless, questioning has made its case over against religion. These are not the projections of a dogma. The question remains, because it is still unanswered: Where is the One in all of this?

  2. Thanks, David – a profound question!. I had to think about it for some time. And I don’t know if I will give the kind of answer appropriate to your question. My answer would be another question: if the One is not to be found in that love for the other that works for justice, where would (s)he be?

    • onesis said:

      Yes a good answer I think, and we are still on the side of the question. There are many forms of justice, or to put it into a more nominalist way of thinking, there are many situations that the word ‘justice’ is made to apply.

      So we are back with another question. In what forms, or in what situations, involving a claimed need for justice, does the One reside?

      Secondly, to put a related question, in relation to love, in what forms of love or situations in which the word ‘love’ is applied, does the One reside?

      Thirdly, given possible answers to the above, what connects such love to working for justice?

      Fourthly, might such love involve a certain sort of hatred, namely, a hatred of the dogma that attends religion?

      Fifthly, how might such hatred be expressed without compromising the love?

      • The original meaning of dogma is ‘opinion’. Just because they are opinions, dogmas are maintained with some kind of force (they need support, so to say). Hatred of opinions is not necessary in love, as love has an altogether different focus.

        As to the One, being beyond this world, so is love in some sense – love understood as being pulled out of complacent being. Without Alterity, there would not be a pull. So I would not seek the love, or the justice, in some positive description of situations themselves – they are at work when we see what lacks in these situations.

  3. onesis said:

    Yes dogma comes from the Greek ‘dokein’, means that which seems good.

    The hatred of which I speak is against the hardening of that which seems good to some, into an unalterable truth. By hatred I mean, aversion to dogma, rather than hostility to people who believe it. Aversion means to turn aside. So someone who hates dogma turns aside, or has been turned aside, from it. Hence there is a parting of the ways from the dogma of religion.

    However this cannot be generalised into hatred of opinions. One has to be in the midst of opinions to pose questions about them. One only turns aside from that questioning, when the opinions are hardened and resistance to the very act of questioning is set up.

    One finds oneself turned aside, rather than consciously and deliberately going an opposite way. Religion turns people away, including those having done nothing more than ask questions.

    As to the One being beyond this world, that too is a proposition that requires questioning. Is it absolute Alterity of which you speak? Is the being of human beings complacent, or is complacency something that seeps into its being from the outside? Does complacency arise directly from dogma, which is the “knowing” (sic) of truth rather than the quest for it?

    One more question:
    “So I would not seek the love, or the justice, in some positive description of situations themselves – they are at work when we see what lacks in these situations.”

    If there are no situations in which love/justice is found, how do you know it exists?

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