The working class is horribly exploited by the ruling class in every country in the world. Why don't the workers organize, smash the bosses, and create a better world?
The answer is: ideas. For thousands of years ruling classes have known it is essential for them to put false ideas in the minds of the people they exploit and kill.
For an idea to serve the interests of the ruling class it must teach the exploited classes that it would be either impossible, or wrong, or, preferably, both, for them to organize, defeat their exploiters, and create a society run in their interests. The general rule for such ideas is that they should keep the masses passive and loyal, divide them against one another and lead them to identify with, and unite behind, one or another section of the ruling class.
Ideologies -- sets of ideas -- that aim to keep the exploited classes passive, loyal, or divided, and teach them to support the rulers, we call ruling-class ideologies, because they originate in, are pushed by, and serve the class interests of, the ruling class. In today's world, the exploited classes are the working class, the proletarianized peasants or farmers, and the sections of other classes, including most "white-collar" workers, whose fate is tied directly to that of the working class. Ideas that serve the interest of the exploited classes we call proletarian or working-class ideas. In today's world, the only working-class ideology is that of communism.
The general rule for ruling-class ideas today is "A.B.C." -- Anything But Class, Anything But Communism. Ultimately, any ideas other than those of violent revolution and an egalitarian communist society will serve the rulers' interest. Religion, racism and nationalism are the main forms (the most common and successful) ruling class ideas take.
Religion is the oldest of the ideologies pushed by ruling classes to mislead workers. Its value to the bosses has always been, and is today, its universality. Religions claim to stand above the conflicts between bosses and workers, landlords and peasants, exploiter and exploited. They foster the illusion that these conflicts -- in fact the basic forces moving human history -- are secondary, temporary, relative, unimportant. According to religious thought, what's most important is that "we are all children of God." In other words, religion teaches that there is more uniting exploiters and the exploited than dividing them. Religion teaches a lie.
Many people have been persuaded that good values cannot be taught except through religion. They think only belief in a "supreme being", a god, can provide the authority they think is necessary to get people to live productive, cooperative lives.
But what are these values? They're ruling-class values -- ideas that help the exploiters and harm everybody else. Religions brainwash workers and others into accepting exploitation. No religion can ever serve workers' interests.
NO religion is neutral! Religion serves the interest of the ruling classes. That's why religion is promoted and pushed avidly by every ruling class in the world. The values taught by every religion keep workers from uniting around the material demands that serve their interests, that save their lives.
The most important of these demands is that for an end to exploitation, the creation of a society of equality for all, run by the working class -- in other words, for communism. No religion ever tolerates this demand! All religions support inequality and exploitation. A few must be rich and many poor because "that's the way God wants it." Try to bring about equality and you're "fighting against God."
Every religion excuses violence by the ruling class against workers on the job, and ruling-class violence in war. But no religion tolerates working-class violence against the bosses. And every religion condemns working-class revolution.
Religions blame workers for the faults of the bosses and of capitalism. Without demanding an end to exploitation, religion spreads in the working class the illusion that a happy, productive life is possible for workers under capitalism. And while religious workers fail to have that kind of life, religion tells them: "It's your own fault", instead of blaming the exploitation of capitalism that ruins our lives.
Religion teaches the falsehood that "human nature is evil." This idea was dreamed up to justify the brutal oppression of the Roman Empire. We're supposed to blame ourselves or "our fellow man" for the evils in the world -- which lets the exploiters go right on robbing and murdering us!
Religion teaches workers to be passive. The values of religion sound good: don't steal, rob, have respect for others, etc. But in fact they are ruling class values. The "religious" ruling classes never obey them! So in reality religion teaches workers to honor, love, not to steal from, lie to, kill -- the bosses! Religion teaches workers to let themselves be exploited, in the hope of reaching a happy life "in heaven." Meanwhile, the bosses are free to exploit and kill us here on earth.
Religion is a form of idealism. Idealist philosophies begin with the assumption that a non-material world (and, therefore, a non-material creator) exists which is superior to the world of matter accessible to the senses.
The opposite of idealism is materialism. Materialist philosophy begins with the assumption that the material world exists prior to any mind that thinks about it and that, in fact, thought and "mind" are simply properties of highly organized matter.
Idealism and materialism, religion and science, arose as a result of the class struggle. This article will outline how this happened in ancient Greek philosophy, from which European philosophy derives. This kind of investigation should be undertaken to understand the development in other civilizations as well.
However, a materialist critique of the role of religion in the West should be of some interest to all workers and communists. The imperialism of European and American ruling classes has spread western culture and religions throughout the world, so that its effects are felt everywhere.
In the 7th century B.C.E. the kingship had been overthrown in Athens by an alliance of the urban mercantile classes and landowners who opposed the arbitrary rule of an all-powerful king (always the dangerous aspect of one-man rule, even for the aristocracy).
This was a momentous event for the development of philosophy. Class struggle had showed that social change was possible. Political institutions, therefore, were not "natural" or inevitable. Class struggle also revealed that what was "good" was relative. What was "good" for the aristocracy, that is, was not absolute, but was bad for other classes. The Greeks had discovered that "the good" was not an eternal value, set by the gods, but depended on what class you were in.
The urban, mercantile, anti-aristocratic classes of the ancient Greek city-states developed a philosophy based upon recognizing the universality of change in the world. This was pre-scientific thought of a high order. Heraclitus and other "pre-Socratic" philosophers were dialectical, recognizing that the world was made up from contradictory forces, just as human society was composed of classes with contradictory interests.
In their struggle against the powerful aristocracy, the urban classes developed materialism as a critical philosophy. The implications of materialism are critical and democratic. Materialist philosophy states that knowledge can be gained by studying change in the natural world, and ultimately in the social world as well. Evidence from the material world can be studied and theories built up to account for it.
In short, there is a method for discovering the truth which anybody can learn. No one has to "believe" what some authority says. A person can use their senses and reason and decide for themselves. Armed with these ideas, Greek materialists attacked aristocratic ideas and justified the rearrangement of social institutions to suit their own class interests.
Just as materialism was the ideological expression of the class interests of the urban mercantile classes, so idealism was the ideological expression of the class interests of the aristocracy. According to idealist thought there is a realm of existence beyond that available to the senses, and much more important than the material world.
Knowledge of this world can be gotten only by some kind of revelation from beyond the material world, and this revelation is given to only a few. Since only these few have knowledge, they must rule. The vast majority, who are incapable of knowing the truth, must simply obey. Naturally the wise are identified with the aristocracy!
There are other elitist implications of idealist thought. Since knowledge cannot come from studying the natural world (it only comes from revelation), then studying the changes that can be observed in the natural world can't lead to any real knowledge. Real knowledge comes from contemplation, not from active engagement with the material world. Of course, only the wealthy have the leisure to "contemplate."
Furthermore since, according to idealism, change is generally bad, a static society is the best society. The oldest political arrangements known to the ancient Greeks were aristocratic ones. These, therefore, are the only "good" ones, those most pleasing to the gods. Attempts to change society -- for example, by the urban mercantile classes to oust the aristocracy from power -- are morally wrong.
The materialist philosophers sharpened their analysis in criticism of idealism and the aristocracy. In science, they developed early versions of the theory of evolution and the first atomic theory. These achievements were remarkable for their time, although they were speculative, not based upon experiment. It took Western philosophy, mired in Christian religious idealism, more than two thousand years to surpass them.
The Greek materialists were sharp and merciless in their critique of religion. Xenophanes, about 500 B.C.E., wrote:
The Ethiopians made their gods black and snub-nosed; the Thracians say their gods have blue eyes and red hair... If oxen or lions had hands and could draw with their hands as men can, horses would make their gods in the shape of horses, and lions like lions
-- each making the gods in their own image.
By observing the customs of different peoples of his day, this materialist philosopher deduced correctly that human beings make the gods, not the other way around. Xenophanes used arguments like this to attack aristocratic power, which justified itself by "the will of the gods." No wonder ruling classes have made tremendous efforts to suppress materialism and stifle its proponents ever since!
In politics, materialist philosophy expressed itself in the theory of "democracy," which meant, in effect, rule by the majority of free male citizens. The "sophists" (literally "wise men") directed the weapon of reason and observation against existing political institutions, politicians, and ideas, but always in defense of democracy and against the power of the wealthy aristocrats.
Early materialist thinkers arrived at many brilliant insights about the natural and human world. In fact, early materialism was a primitive form of scientific thinking. But materialism could not develop into full science. It was held back by the primitive level of social and economic development of ancient society. Based upon slave and super-exploited peasant labor, materialist thought was chained within idealist limits. The material basis for the idea of human equality to flourish did not exist. Here is why:
Because work was regarded as essentially slavish and ignoble, even the brilliant achievements of ancient scientists were regarded as curiosities. If work is slavish, then only "contemplation" can be "noble." Thus the slave system caused ancient materialists to shrink from the whole experimental basis on which science must rest.
Archimedes was the greatest scientific mind of antiquity. He discovered parabolic mirrors and the famous principle that bears his name -- that the apparent loss in weight of any object submerged in a liquid is equal to the weight of an equal volume of that liquid.
And yet Archimedes possessed such a lofty spirit, so profound a soul, and such a wealth of scientific theory, that although his invention had won for him a name and fame for superhuman wisdom, he would not consent to leave behind him any treatise on this subject: regarding the work of an engineer and every art that ministers to the needs of life as ignoble and vulgar, he devoted his efforts only to those studies, the subtlety and the charm of which are not affected by the claims of necessity. (Plutarch)
Archimedes' ideology was limited by that of the society of his day, in which work of whatever kind was considered ignoble. Contemplation and passivity, not experiment, were thought by idealists, the philosophers of the aristocracy, to be the only activities appropriate for gaining wisdom. No science could develop under these conditions.
Alexander the Great conquered the Greek city states in 333 B.C. and put an end to Greek democracy. With the social base for ancient materialism gone, idealism triumphed. Aristotle, the greatest idealist philosopher of all time, was Alexander's tutor. Naturally an enemy of materialism and democracy, Aristotle originated the first thoroughly developed justification for slavery, the notion of 'natural slavery.' With very little change, this idea became the basis of all idealist philosophies that justify inequality. It directly inspired the racist and idealist notions of "genetic superiority" pushed by apologists for exploitation today like Arthur Jensen or, more recently, Herrnstein and Murray in The Bell Curve.
The idealists and their aristocratic bosses declared war on materialism. All of the writings of the ancient materialists were thrown out or destroyed. They exist in fragments only, while the voluminous writings of the idealists -- Plato, Aristotle, and even their later pupils -- exist in many copies.
Plato, the wealthy aristocrat who became the first and most famous idealist philosopher, sided with the aristocrats against democracy. He also hated materialism. One ancient story states that he deliberately bought up and destroyed all the copies he could find of the works of Democritus, the most famous ancient materialist, originator of the first atomic theory of matter. True or not, the story does show that even ancient writers understood the antagonism between materialism and idealism, the class struggle in the realm of ideas.
Materialism went underground. The only materialist work surviving from Roman times, Lucretius' de rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), exists in only one manuscript, and nothing is know about the author. No wonder: it is an extended attack on religion as the main cause of human misery! But Lucretius was an upper-class Roman. Cut off from contact with the masses, ancient materialism never developed an experimental basis, becoming speculative and undialectical (i.e. not able to account for change by examining the contradictions in all things that make change possible).
Materialism remained stifled for 1800 years until the emergence of modern forms of class struggle in the Renaissance. In fact, in its most developed, scientific form -- dialectical materialism, the working-class philosophy of communism -- materialism is still stifled and underground in every country in the world, since they are all dominated by capitalist ruling classes.
The rest of this essay outlines a materialist history of how religion began in the West. We examine how religion was used by the ruling classes of Egypt, ancient Greece and Rome, and the Jews to help keep the exploited classes down. It concludes with an outline of the development of Christianity as an imperialist religion.
For 90% of its existence, the human race lived under primitive communism -- collective, more or less egalitarian societies characterized by a low level of development of productive technology. Since there was no exploitation or inequality, there was no need to justify it. In pre-class societies most myths and beliefs were pre-scientific attempts to understand and control nature by magic, since it could not be mastered through science.
Usually, all members of the society could appeal to the spirits or gods. Certain persons normally became "specialists" in handling these spirits. Modern researchers call these specialists "shamans." They were considered skilled craftsmen like the makers of baskets, pots, stone implements, or clothing. In such societies there was no cult -- no priesthood set apart from and above the masses, who monopolized access to the gods, and used this monopoly to exploit the working masses.
Class society was born with the "agricultural revolution", that began in Europe and Asia somewhere between 20,000 and 10,000 B.C.E. "Hunting and gathering" societies, the mode of production which preceded agriculture, generally did not allow accumulation of a large enough surplus to support a class of non-productive persons who live by exploiting the rest of the population. The "productivity of labor" in such societies is very low, because of the low level of technology (tools), so the labor of almost every individual, children included, is needed to ensure the community's survival.
Agricultural production permitted the accumulation of a large surplus for the first time in human history. (The "surplus" is that amount of goods over and above the amount necessary for a population to reproduce itself). Existence of a large surplus for the first time in human history made possible the evolution of a class of persons removed from the production of essential social goods.
It took thousands of years for a ruling class to evolve in the earliest agricultural societies. Some ruling classes seem to have originated when a militarily more powerful group, often from a nomadic, or hunting/gathering society, conquered a more settled, less warlike people and set themselves up as rulers.
But it's just as likely that the origins of the first ruling classes are the same as those of the first religions. Grain (which, if kept dry and away from pests, may be stored for a long time) was often kept in an area devoted to earth or vegetation gods. Both a priesthood -- a group that monopolized access to the wealth-bestowing gods -- and a ruling class may have evolved from the group of shamans who specialized in guaranteeing that the nature gods kept giving good harvests.
Class divisions in society led to a corresponding split in the concept of the world. The world was "turned on its head." Instead of humans as the maker of the harvest and of the gods themselves, the gods, products of the human mind, were said to have made humans! Though the gods resembled humans (and still do), they were said to have made man in their image, rather than the reverse.
The gods/humans, or heaven/earth split mirrored the class division on earth between the rulers -- the landowners and warriors, including the king and priests -- and the working masses. The gods become the "great bosses in the sky", to whom everything belongs. They can be approached only by the ruling classes, and respond only to them. Sometimes the rulers are imagined to be gods themselves, like the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt, or the descendants of gods, like the Caesars of Rome. Religion is born.
By time that the first written documents appear and some chronological record of history (at least of the history of the rulers) can be attempted -- about 3000 B.C. in the Near East -- religion is already serving what has always been, and still is, its main purpose -- to justify the domination and exploitation of the working people by a ruling class.
In agricultural societies, where the main source of economic wealth is farming the soil, the ruling class is the class of landowners. Throughout human history, the main form the political rule of landowners takes is monarchy, the king beginning as simply the largest and most powerful landowner. In ancient Egypt the whole religion was centered on the worship of the king as a god. This legitimized not only the rule of the Pharaoh (king) but of the whole Egyptian land-owning class.
Despite fierce class struggles by Egyptian peasants and craftsmen -- rebellions never mentioned by most history books -- the Egyptian religion always retained the idea of a divine king, and the power of the landlord class. The different conquerors of Egypt saw the wisdom of using the Egyptian religion to justify their power as well, and so supported it when they took over.
Greece made the transition from primitive communist -- nomadic, hunting-and-gathering, tribal society without classes -- to agricultural, class society much later than the Near Eastern kingdoms, and under their influence. Furthermore, Greek society developed around many separate cities, divided from one another by mountains and the sea. Strong merchant and craftsman classes developed alongside the landowners and peasantry. This led to a qualitatively different kind of class struggle within the Greek cities.
By 600 B.C. many Greek states had overthrown their kings, representing the dictatorship of the landlords, and established "democracies." Democracy was a form of government that corresponded to a coalition, or armed truce, between the various powerful classes: landowners, or "aristocrats" (as they called themselves; the term means "the best men rule"), and merchants and craftsmen, the "demo" or "people". But women, foreigners, and slaves were not considered to be part of the "people."
Corresponding to the many Greek cities were the many Greek gods. In the "myths", or stories about them, they were more or less equal, and often quarreled among themselves, as did the cities. Different cities, naturally, had different favorite gods.
Within a given city, different classes favored different gods. In Athens of the fifth century B.C.E. the merchants and craftsmen favored Hermes and Hephaestus. Hermes was a kind of messenger-god; Hephaestus, a blacksmith. These were gods of activity, corresponding to the industry of the democratic classes. The aristocrats expressed their different class interests by favoring Apollo, warrior, aristocrat, the god of "reason", and an aristocrat himself. The temples of Apollo were not in the city at all, but out in the countryside, where the aristocracy dominated.
In the mid-fifth century B.C., when the power and wealth of Athenian democracy's imperialism was at its height, the greatest temple built was the temple of Hephaestus. It was even larger than that of Athena, after whom the city was named and who represented the hope of all-class unity within the city -- a hope never realized.
Small statues of Hermes, the messenger/merchant god, stood all around the town. During Athens' war against Sparta, an aristocratic state, and other Greek states which wanted to break away from her imperialist grip (the Pelopponesian War), these statues of Hermes were suddenly mutilated. This was taken as a sign that the aristocrats of Athens were really siding with Athens' enemies, in the hopes that, if they won, they'd overthrow the democracy and set up an aristocratic oligarchy, or "rule by a few". This is, in fact, exactly what happened eventually.
Democracy -- the rivalry of different classes, and the coexistence of many Greek city states, represented the social basis of "polytheism", the worship of many gods. But by 333 B.C. the Greek city states had all been conquered by Alexander the Great, and 10 years later the whole eastern Mediterranean was under his power.
At the same time, Greek religion began to undergo a change. Less attention was paid by the ruling classes to the many gods. One god, "Father Zeus", was said to be the most powerful. Later he was even said to be the only god; the others were his servants, or even just Zeus himself in different form.
The evolution of monotheism is logical to the growth of imperialism. Polytheism did not provide a good justification for a strong empire with one all-powerful ruler. Plurality in the world of the gods might appear to justify plurality in the political world. "One god" in heaven provided a better justification for "one emperor" on earth.
The first appearance of monotheism, the worship of only one god (in Greek, monos = "one", theos = "god") had been in the Persian Empire, where monotheism, at first suppressed, quickly became the official religion. An Egyptian Pharaoh, Ikhnamen, had tried to replace traditional Egyptian polytheism with the worship of one god, Aten ( a sun god, like Apollo) in the 12th century B.C. But the Egyptian ruling classes were never won to this innovation, and returned to polytheism after his death.
The Hebrews originated as one of many nomadic peoples. Little is known for sure about their origins. The stories in the Old Testament are certainly not accurate history, like bourgeois theologians and misguided religious people think they are. The ancestors of the Jews may have come from Egypt at some time between 1600 - 1300 B.C.; the name of the legendary founder of Judaism, Moses, is Egyptian. Or the story of Egyptian slavery may be a much later reflection of a struggle between a Jewish temple in Egypt and another in Jerusalem, and have never happened at all!
The Old Testament myths relates that the Jewish upper classes, the landed aristocracy and royal house, were constantly oppressing and exploiting the peasants and city population. They naturally intermarried with aristocratic women from surrounding kingdoms, who brought their gods and goddesses with them. Even in the book of Genesis, stories like that of the "Sons of God" lying with the "daughters of men" show that Judaism was at first poly-theistic.
The Hebrews had until recently been a nomadic, hunting, gathering, and herding people. The stories about Abraham and his descendants in Genesis show that memories about the more-or-less egalitarian past were valued highly by the common people. They told of better times in the past, when there were tribal leaders but no kings or aristocrats, before the appearance of agriculture with the attendant exploitation of the peasantry.
The Hebrews lived "between the hammer and the anvil" -- right between the huge Egyptian empire and a series of other empires: Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Syrian. As a result the Hebrew kings suffered catastrophic defeats. It was easy for the "prophets," the religious spokespersons of the exploited classes, to lay the blame for the Jewish kings' defeats on their polytheism, and tie this to their oppression of the poor. They were "unfaithful to the true god."
In this way monotheism became, among the Jews, the watchword of the social critics who opposed exploitation. The Pentateuch, or first five books, were written up from older stories so as to date the origins of the Hebrews to a time when there were no kings, no private property in land, and no priesthood. This was a standing contradiction and reproach to the contemporary state of affairs, with exploitation and injustice abounding, and with a temple cult presided over by aristocratic priests who were essential for the major religious rituals.
After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. the Jewish upper classes adopted Greek language, culture, and many philosophical and religious ideas. Meanwhile, among the exploited classes of town and village, the center of Jewish religion moved away from the temple and priestly cult, presided over by these increasingly foreign-seeming aristocrats, and towards smaller, decentralized "synagogues" or meetings.
Christianity, therefore, drew on both traditions of monotheism -- that of the Greek world, where it was a mainstay of a horribly oppressive, slave empire; and that of the Jewish world, where it was the symbol of resistance to ruling-class decadence in a world where materialism had never really developed.
Sometime between the years 20 and 30 A.D. a Jewish teacher who called himself Joshua, after one of the great military leaders of Hebrew mythology, began to preach two interrelated ideas. He preached a war of the exploited peasants and the urban poor against both the Roman occupiers and the collaborationist Jewish upper classes. He saw this as a part of a religious reform, an effort to bring Judaea back to the "kingdom of god," that is, in conformity with god's wishes.
He first attached himself to the major religious reformer of the time, John the Baptizer, and continued on his own after John's imprisonment, probably taking some of John's followers with him. After much preaching and organizing work, Joshua entered into Jerusalem with his forces, greeted by a demonstration of popular support for his anti-Roman goals. He was announced as the Messiah, that is, the "anointed" political/religious leader, and occupied the great temple.
This act was an unmistakable challenge both to the Jewish upper classes (who comprised the temple priesthood), who exploited the masses as landlords and as collectors of the temple tax, and to their Roman masters, whose military garrison overlooked the temple. Upon the failure of the revolt its leader, Joshua, was captured and executed in the way the Romans reserved for rebels, by crucifixion.
Whether or not his followers believed that he had been resurrected from the dead, they continued his movement. His brother, James "the Just", who succeeded Joshua, was a respected rabbi mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus. The Acts of the Apostles, which survives in the New Testament in a heavily re-written version, concedes that the Christian movement after Joshua's death was a part of Judaism, not a separate religion. It survived as such for at least several hundred years thereafter under the name of "Ebionites", or "the Poor." Apparently this was the real name of Joshua's movement, since Paul refers to it by that name too.
However, Christianity as we know it is descended, not from Joshua, called Jesus in Greek, but from Paul. Paul, who admits he never met Jesus personally, was the devotee of a Greek other-worldly, mystery religion which modern scholars call Gnostic.
The Gnostic religions were strongly elitist and escapist. They originated as a result of the evolution of class society.
With Alexander the Great's conquests, democracy ended for two thousand years. One oppressive, slave-holding empire succeeded another. Civil wars and slave revolts never succeeded in freeing the slaves, peasants or urban poor from exploitation.
Under these conditions, resistance seemed futile to many, and they sought escape in an afterlife. The vegetation religion of the early, communal society became a peasant religion of escape. Under the influence of wine, the peasants sought union with their god in spirit. Ceremonies were closed to outsiders; only the "initiated" could take part, and really achieve oneness with the Bacchus. Like many other gods and goddesses of vegetation, Bacchus was said to be killed and then reborn, just as people believed a seed had to "die" in the ground in order to be "reborn" as a new plant many times more splendid.
These religions were acceptable to the ruling classes because they laid the blame for suffering on human sin, not on exploitation. They were elitist and anti-egalitarian, since they taught that only a select few could really know what the god wanted. The educated middle classes were attracted to them because the violence of class struggle terrified them and they were repelled by elitism from uniting with the exploited poor and the slaves. "Gnostic", or "wisdom" religions added a special role for the educated; only they could be the elect and really achieve unity with the god.
By the time of Jesus' birth, Gnostic, otherworldly religions were everywhere in the Greek world. This is the immediate background for Christianity.
Paul may have been a Jew (as he claims in his own writings) or not; he was certainly a Gnostic. The earliest Christians had foreseen a better world in this life. Some of Jesus' sayings can only be explained in this way. In addition, the fragments of Papian, the earliest quotations (about 120 A.D.) from any Christian leader, make it clear that he thought in terms of a this-worldly paradise.
But Paul was already putting this off to the next world. Life on earth, then, became a punishment for inborn sin. This meant a severe, repressive government was needed to hold human sin in check, and Paul's writings state in no uncertain terms that the government must be obeyed. This world also became a test; only those who were "good" -- passive and obedient enough -- would gain union with god after death.
Every aspect of Pauline Christianity marks it as a religion whose doctrine evolved to suit the needs of an oppressive slave-holders' empire. Gone was the relative egalitarianism of the early mystery religions. In Christianity, the masses could only interact with the god -- for forgiveness, for union ("communion"), for happiness ("blessing") -- through an authorized priest. To guarantee control over the priests who dealt with the common people, they were put into an authoritarian structure controlled by aristocrats, who alone were chosen as high officers of the church (bishops, archbishops, -- the word "bishop" means "overseer" or "supervisor" in Greek, and was also one term used for the foremen who forced gangs of slaves to work faster). God was depicted as simply the greatest of all the slave owners and landlords, the "king of kings", "lord of lords."
The early Christian leadership mounted a sustained campaign to make Christianity acceptable to the Romans. The second century theologian Tertullian made the veiled threat: Christianity was spreading rapidly everywhere; if Christians wanted to return evil for evil, they could create tremendous disruption in the Empire. Yet, under the doctrine of the church "fathers," Christians remained passive and obedient to the Emperor even when they were tortured to death in large numbers.
The message was clear: Christianity was an ideal religion for an oppressive empire. Any exploiter would love to have his subjects accept this highly authoritarian ideology, every aspect of which suited the interest of the land-owning ruling class. It was only a matter of time before some emperor recognized this.
The Romans aristocracy had learned the importance of religion in controlling their own lower classes. The aristocratic historian Livy, in his history of the Roman republic, wrote thus about the (mythological) origins of Roman religion:
Numa Pompilius [an early king of Rome, 6th century B.C.E.] decided upon a step which he felt would prove more effective than anything else with a mob as rough and ignorant as the Romans were in those days. This was to inspire them with the fear of the gods.
He then made up a story about his meeting at night with the goddess Egeria, by whose authority he set up Roman religion practices. According to Michael Grant, "almost every educated Roman . . . held precisely this view of his national religion and mythology, that it was something to keep the people quiet . . ."
The historian Polybius (2nd century B.C.E.) "expresses the belief that the ruling class arranges matters in such a way on account of the masses, who need to be impressed and 'restrained'" (Grant, 226; cf. Polybius VI, 56). Scaevola, the chief priest, wrote a few years later that
it is expedient that populations should be deceived in the matter of religion.
Scaevola's own father, also a priest, had put together some of the chief religious myths of Rome. The famous aristocratic apologist Cicero, noted for his hatred of any Roman who sided with the lower classes, stated in his Laws (II, 12) that
the people's constant need for the advice and authority of the conservative upper classes is what holds the state together.
The significant thing about this is how deliberately and consciously this use of religion for political purposes by the Roman upper classes was. It was the Roman emperor Constantine who declared toleration for Christianity and then made sure he controlled the myths that embodied it.
However, this was not basically any different than was done in ancient Greece and by the Hebrew ruling classes during Old Testament times. In Genesis, for example, Solomon is made to descend directly from Esau the Edomite and Heth the Canaanite because Jewish kings wanted to claim these lands. The whole story of the Egyptian Captivity of the Jews may well be due to an attempt by the Jerusalem priesthood to make a rival Jewish temple in Egypt look illegitimate. Certainly the Old Testament is no more "historically accurate" than the new.
Before acceding to the throne in 307 AD, Constantine had been "Caesar" (adopted son and successor) to the emperor Diocletian (284-305 AD). He had participated in the last, and the largest, attempt to wipe out Christianity. Diocletian was trying to keep the empire together. It was a massive system of class exploitation that had outgrown the technical ability of the emperors to unite. Constantine declared toleration for Christianity about the same time he built Constantinople and divided the Empire in two sections, East and West, in order to try to hold it together, while in reality recognizing the inevitability of division.
Under Diocletian, Christianity had been attacked because it challenged traditional Roman religion. On the ideological level, the Romans had tried to enforce loyalty among the different peoples in the empire by demanding that the local ruling classes, whom the Romans manipulated and through whom they ruled, make the Roman emperor one of the gods in their religion. The Jewish lower classes refused, and the Romans crushed them in two massive rebellions (66-73 and 132-5 AD).
When the Christians also refused to sacrifice to the emperor, the Romans persecuted them as followers of a Jewish rebel, as they knew well Joshua/Jesus had been. The four New Testament gospels were composed largely to rewrite history and convince early Christians and the Romans themselves that Joshua/Jesus had not in fact been the rebel the Romans had killed him for being.
Constantine's acceptance of Christianity as a favored religion represented his recognition that Christianity was an ideal ideology for the empire. Since Jesus belonged to no ethnic group -- Paul had made Jesus' Judaism irrelevant to his message -- he was the ideal "abstract man" for all peoples. Christians were not pacifists -- the imperial army contained one legion made up entirely of Christian soldiers -- but were so loyal to their bishops, or "overseers", that they would never fight back against oppression even when their families were tortured to death before their eyes.
Constantine demanded the Church leaders get together in a number of Church Councils to hammer out a unified "line" or doctrine. If the Church were to help unify the empire, the differences in doctrine that had grown up over time, and which reflected the relative autonomy of the bishops in different parts of the huge empire, had to be done away with and ideological unity imposed. The Emperor controlled the outcome of all of the church's Councils.
This marks a qualitative step in ruling-class control. For the first time in Western history, an empire of many diverse ethnic and language groups was united under one ideological institution that claimed god-given rights. The international ruling class of the late Roman Empire had a single religious ideology that supported the bosses regardless of where or who they were.
The emperor called together the church leaders (the "overseers", or "bishops") to work out a common set of teachings and a monolithic leadership. If Christianity was to be of any use to the Empire's ruling class, it had to serve as a force for unity behind the emperor.
But during the 275 or so years of its existence, the Christian church, like the Empire itself, had developed into a poly-centric organization. The different bishops in the major urban centers of the Empire -- Christianity was mainly a religion of the cities; hence the Latin word paganus, or "country-dweller", became synonymous with "non-Christian" -- were more or less independent of one another, and had their own differences in doctrine and interpretation of the Jesus story. There was no agreement on what "books" or stories should be considered divinely inspired ("canonical") -- that is, there was no agreement on what a "Bible" should be made up of.
Most important for the Empire were the questions of Church leadership and the nature of God. There was no one Church leader whose decision was binding and final. Any bishop was free to teach his own version of the religion in his area. Also, the question of whether Christianity was a religion of several gods, or of one god only, had not yet really been decided.
These issues were crucial because the Church's poly-centrism mirrored the poly-centrism that was tearing the Empire apart. Since 66 A.D. most emperors had come to power not from Rome, but by gaining a power base in a distant province and overthrowing the current emperor.
The rival leaders and teachings of the church, if left unchanged, would be a threat to the unity that Constantine wanted, since they would legitimize regional conflicts of interest and multiple leaders. Constantine demanded that the authority of the bishop of Rome be recognized as supreme; he wanted the leader in Rome where he could control him.
The question of the nature of god was even more important. Following late Greek religions, Christianity had developed a notion of at least three "divine beings" -- a father (identified with Yahweh, the God of the Israelites), a son (Jesus), and a "spirit of god" somehow different from the other two. A plurality of divine beings in heaven would surely legitimize the existence of a plurality of political rulers on earth.
However, if Jesus the "son" were not really a human being but only god the father in human form, then his sacrifice never really took place, since a god can't really die. So urging the exploited to "be like Jesus", suffer meekly, "turn the other cheek," -- to submit without protest to the injustices of the rulers of this world -- would make no sense, because a mere mortal cannot imitate a god. For the religion to help unify the empire and strengthen the authority of the emperor, there had to be one and only one god. But for Christianity to appeal to the exploited and teach them to love and obey their exploiters, Jesus had to be human.
Constantine demanded that the Church leaders solve this logically insoluble problem. They came up with the doctrine of the "Trinity" -- there really are three distinct entities, and yet there is only one god. Since this makes no sense, it was called a "mystery", a term meaning "believe it and don't ask questions."
The authoritarian nature of the Church, and through it of the Empire, was thereby doubly reinforced. "One god in heaven" meant there should be "one emperor on earth." Rebellion against the emperor was therefore "heresy", a religion offense as well. And, since Church doctrines were no longer logical, they could not be questioned. All the thinking was to be done by the Church leaders, helped, of course, by the Emperor. The role of the masses was simply to obey without understanding.
So the idea of "orthodoxy" -- Greek for "correct teaching" -- was created. This was a qualitative step forward in ruling-class ideological control. There was to be one set of carefully-defined beliefs inculcated into everyone from birth. These teachings were the same regardless of ethnic group, language, and social class.
No questioning them was allowed, no means provided whereby they could be legitimately questioned. All deviation from them was a sin, punishable by condemnation to an eternity of torture in Hell, compared to which the life of the most oppressed slave was a paradise. Deviation from these ideas was at the same time a political crime, punishable by the state through torture, imprisonment and death. The word "heresy" in Greek means "choice", something the masses must never have.
Christian ideology suppressed ancient scientific thought, suppressed ancient ideas of toleration towards religious and cultural differences. Ancient learning and literature was suppressed and even destroyed as sinful. To the bourgeois atheist, all this appears to be the depths of ignorance and backwardness.
But as dialectical materialists we must recognize the progressive aspects of Christianity as well. Christianity was universal, transcending the ancient tribal religions based on one ethnic group, just as the Empire united the Mediterranean, Western Europe and North Africa into a single political and economic unity.
Christianity encompassed the notion that all human beings were equal, at least in the sight of god. In so doing it provided the germ of a criticism of inequality on earth, even while guaranteeing the security of that inequality as part of the inscrutable will of god. Christian orthodoxy established the idea that there is only one truth, though it displaced the search for that truth from the material world to the realm of ideas.
Christianity gave concrete recognition to the reality of the class struggle in another way -- by recognizing the age-old desire of the exploited masses for a classless society free of exploitation, a return to the "golden age" or "the garden of paradise," and promised this to the masses, though relegating it to a realm after death. It recognized the class struggle, even while designed to control it in the interests of the ruling class.
However, other ancient religions which competed with Christianity for recognition by the Empire's ruling class contained these ideas also. And several of the Christian "heresies" gave far more recognition to the poor than did orthodox Christianity.
Christianity was the ideal religion for a vast slave-owning empire. The Christian concept of God was perfectly suited to the super-exploitation of slave labor, the economic basis of the Roman Empire.
God was the great slave-owner, a god of fear, who had his own son tortured to death by crucifixion and who did not shrink from inflicting the worst punishments imaginable on humans disobedient to his will. He demanded absolute obedience not only in act but even in thought.
In order to justify the slave-camp of horrors that the Roman Empire was for most of its inhabitants, Christianity borrowed from Gnosticism the notion of fallen human nature. Human beings were declared to be naturally evil, deserving only torment and death. They could be saved only by god's "grace", which only the church could dole out. And the church only gave this "grace" in return for strict obedience! The constant threat of disobedience, even in thought, was hell, an eternity of the worst tortures.
This also justified the unrelieved brutality of the ruling classes. Harsh government was needed to keep vicious human nature from running amok. As for exploitation, torture and slavery -- well, they were no more than fallen human nature deserved, and anyway the patient slave would be rewarded in heaven for a life of suffering on earth. As Joe Hill, an American working-class leader of the early 20th century, sang, the church offered the exploited "Pie in the Sky When You Die."
The pagan Roman emperors had only required their subjects to take an oath, and perform a symbolic sacrifice to a Roman god or to the emperor. This form of ideological control was obviously weak and ineffective. A person could perform these rites and speak the right words while inwardly remaining disloyal. Under Christianity Roman subjects were supposed to constantly search their innermost beings to rid themselves of disobedient thoughts.
The Church was run by the ruling classes, who filled virtually all the top positions. It also became a large landowner itself, exploiting slave, and later serf, labor. This direct ruling-class domination was necessary, of course, to guarantee that Christianity continued to embody the ideological values of the ruling classes.
Under these conditions, any criticism of social and economic conditions had to express itself as a disagreement with the orthodox theology that justified the status quo. The ideology of the exploited took the form of "heresies," deviant versions of Christianity that rejected some of the ruling-class ideas. Since the Church hierarchy reflected the class structure of society, low-ranking priests from or close to the exploited classes were usually involved.
The sexism of the ruling classes -- always an important aspect of ruling-class ideology, an attempt to blame women for their super-exploitation -- reflected itself in the second-class status the Church forced on women, who were blamed as the cause of sin in humankind and a constant threat to male virtue.
Pre-Christian beliefs, usually more egalitarian and hostile to the oppressive church and relying on traditional magic, persisted among peasants, especially women. They were termed "witch-craft," and by the 18th century nine million women and children, more or less, had been tortured to death as "witches" by Catholic and Protestant churches alike.
The Protestant Reformation took place in the 1500s as the qualitative culmination of many social and political changes that had been developing for several centuries, and these were due to the growth of a money economy and production for a market. Capitalism in its early stages undermined the "feudal" economy, and the bourgeoisie -- the banking, merchant, and craft classes in the cities -- became more important economically and politically in relation to the landowning aristocracy upon whose class rule feudalism was based.
Protestantism preserved most of the traditional doctrines of Catholicism, but adapted the ideology to suit the new rule of the capitalist classes organized into centralized nation-states, the political form taken by capitalist rule. Today mainstream Protestantism is mainly confined to Northern and Western Europe, and those areas of the world like North America colonized by it. Fundamentalist Protestantism is being promoted aggressively among the working classes as a violently anti-communist and anti- working class ideology, especially among super-exploited workers in the formerly colonial world.
We communists fight for the working class. Workers cannot be free of exploitation and the miseries of capitalism until they have overthrown the ruling classes and run society by themselves. Communists have always studied the class struggles of the past, and this study shows that workers must organize under a party that fights for their interests and that will never sell out to the bosses -- a communist party. Violent revolution is necessary, since no ruling class yields power without a violent struggle.
Communists must oppose religion, because religion is always and everywhere a tool of the rulers to dominate and dupe the workers. Religion is essentially elitist and undemocratic. Communists are materialists. We must use science to unmask false ideas.
Throughout the ages, nothing has held back the struggle of the exploited for justice, nothing has caused as much passivity, as religion. We encourage all comrades and friends to criticize this article and write further articles exposing how religion keeps oppresses us all and serves the bosses