Religion: Russell’s teapot.

From a work in progress: ‘The Authority of the Boot-maker’ by Mal Content.

“Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”

– Bertrand Russell: ‘Is There a God?’ 1952.

Unlike many anarchists it’s not a priority of mine to go around ridiculing other people’s spirituality – “some of my best friends are religious” – ha ha! Religion interests me only insofar as it is used to justify and reinforce power structures. It should be self-evident that hierarchical, dogmatic, and secretive institutions lend themselves to abuses of power, whether they are revolutionary socialist parties or the Roman Catholic Church. The conviction that they are acting under divine or scientific authority, and that their mission is more important than the well-being of any individual is a toxic combination.

The just-world fallacy and system justification are explicitly written into the scriptures; postulating an omnipotent and omniscient deity whose movements are so mysterious as to include hitting the St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church in San Bernardino, California with a mudslide on Christmas Day 2003, killing fourteen worshippers including nine children, his wonders to perform – merry fucking Christmas! Anyway, I wasn’t going to take the piss.

At its core is the concept of faith, belief in something you have read or been told without requiring proof, which would seem on the face of it to have negative evolutionary potential, however it is considered a great virtue. It follows that the writer or speaker of the ‘word of God’ must be deferred to.

If you allow the evidence of your senses and judgement of your intellect to be overruled by doctrine, you subordinate yourself not to God, but to another human being. Where religion is established, the priesthood are either directly appointed, or franchised by, the ruling class, so they are going to favour the status quo, uphold cultural traditions and endorse the prevailing mode of production. Under these circumstances interpretation of scripture is best left to professionals who can choose what to emphasise – how exactly do you get a camel through the eye of a needle? Organised religions seek to get established because they must compete for members, where they express an interest in the social order they take for granted the dominance of man over nature, of men over women, of property, debt and government.

Most religions have an ethical code*, confirming the wise and loving nature of God, despite His own delinquent conduct. Charity, honesty and self-sacrifice should help with recruitment and safeguard private property, but transaction, and its evil twin, coercion, are also built in. Piety, faith, accurate observation of rules and rituals are meant to curry favour with the God/s and stave off misfortune (except the mysterious kind). The package includes immortality, a second leap of faith that part of the person survives death to be rewarded, punished or reincarnated, bolstering virtue with a cost-benefit calculation. Eternity is a bloody long time, so this is no more than a tautologous demonstration of belief.

*The teapot is silent on these issues, though some of Her followers have adopted the mantra: “make tea not war”

Religious morality is abstracted however, it is systematically alienated from human antagonisms, so well suited to a society based on the alienation of labour. The social conditions that lead to conflict are no concern of religion; poverty and inequality are to be accepted gracefully as God’s will. Even theologically-inspired liberation movements confine themselves to appealing to ‘natural justice’ or ‘human rights’ rather than analysing and dismantling oppressive structures.

Return to fundamentalism or reform of a decadent tradition can serve to unseat an old order and make way for new social conditions of production, as the Protestant reformation paved the way for capitalism. A new religious orthodoxy lent itself to the creation of bourgeois essentials such as the concept of race – used to justify primitive accumulation, and the nuclear family – to separate production from reproduction.

Its residue is found in the apparently contradictory views of the Christian right, who promote social control while rejecting economic regulation. Abortion is opposed, but also sex education and contraception in schools. The alleviation of poverty and disease are of little importance compared with dragging unwanted pregnancies to full term. Creationism, biblical misogyny and homophobia help to muddy the water against informed choice. Behind all this woolly-headedness is a white supremacist agenda that seeks to concentrate social problems such as overcrowding, illiteracy, and ill-health in specific communities. Domestic poverty guarantees a pool of cheap, easily exploited labour. Overseas poverty lowers the price of raw materials, which boosts the margin on manufacturing. Nuclear weapons and military expenditure are supported for their vast public subsidy to private capital.

Your transactional balance sheet starts out in the red thanks to ‘sin’ or guilt – which the faithful are meant to feel most of the time, unworthy, indebted. Despite the similarity of the word ‘guilt’ (old English gylt) to words such as: gilt, gild, gold, guild geld, guilder etc., the dictionary only says: “can be confused with” however:

“Looking at instances where Old English has been changed to Latin, we find that gylt is rendered as debitum in The Lord’s Prayer, and guilty turns up as debet in the Gospel of Matthew. So here’s where there’s a case to be made for guilt having the sense of debt – something you owe. And certainly feeling guilty because you have failed to deliver what was owed doesn’t appear too way out.

If we accept this – and you’re always free to disagree – then we can find some similar Germanic family words related to debt. Old English has the word scyld meaning crime, sin, or just plain guilt, which in turn is cognate with Old Norse skuld, Old Saxon sculd, and Old High German scult, all of which also have the sense of debt or bondage.”

– Russell T. Cross: ‘The Etyman™ Language Blog’

And:

“According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymology of the Old English gylt is largely unknown, since the connection commonly assumed, the Old Teutonic root geld (to pay), is phonologically inadmissible. But the primary sense of ‘debt’ can still be assumed on the grounds that debitum in the NT is rendered as gylt and because the Old English scyld (Germanic schuld) developed the sense of ‘guilt’ from that of ‘debt’. The Germanic schuld, as derived from the verb sollen, has migrated to the Modern English ‘should’ to express an obligation, while the earliest use of gylt designates a “failure of duty” (OED) or something that ‘should have’ been done. As seen from the history of this semantic migration, which records the coexistence of ‘should’ and ‘should have’, or the economic and the moral sense, the modem English sense of ‘guilt’ is stricken with ambiguity.”

– David Ratmoko: ‘On Spectrality: Fantasies of Redemption in the Western Canon’.

Ah, sorry about all that, but I thought it was bleeding obvious anyway.

A Boss in Heaven is the best excuse for a boss on earth, therefore If God did exist, he would have to be abolished.

– Mikhail Bakunin, God and the State

Religion perfectly sets you up for a life of exploitation by unfathomable market forces. In a universe that is simultaneously beautiful and terrible, you are but a speck, nevertheless it was all created especially for you, you ungrateful bastard. Have faith, be submissive, obedient, even your little corner of the world is beyond your comprehension or control – except through your personal relations with the deity. Ask humbly for what you need, and if you don’t get it, it’s because you’re unworthy. It’s all about you – try harder, you’re working for the greater good, but don’t ask questions, you wouldn’t understand. Accept every twist of fortune as punishment or reward. The distant, alienated boss you never see, has more important things to do than speak to you, but nevertheless numbers every hair on your head, and even watches you in the bog.* If he makes you redundant, gives you cancer or drowns your kids, it’s only to test your faith.

* If you work for Amazon, this may be literally true.

“The world doesn’t owe you a living”, why not exactly? Monotheistic religions would have it that we owe our lives and our environment to the Creator; so that in effect we are all born in debt. The Judeo-Christian creation myth lays down the law from the beginning, adding the concept of original sin for good measure, to justify not only the subjugation of women but the following injunction:

“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

– Genesis 3:19.

That was the King James Version, and comes close to excusing wage labour, or even slavery; by the time we come to the Good News Translation, it’s gone all Waitrose organic:

“You will have to work hard and sweat to make the soil produce anything, until you go back to the soil from which you were formed. You were made from soil, and you will become soil again.”

– Genesis 3:19.

It’s almost as if they hadn’t heard the Bad News about the producers having been expropriated from the soil. Historically, states have claimed divine authority or at least approval for their activities via established religion, thereby taking on the responsibility for collecting our cosmic debt; this function they sub-contract to the blessed bourgeoisie.

“Do they owe us a living? Of course they do, of course they do.
… Owe us a living? Of course they fucking do!”

– Crass: ‘Do they owe us a living?’

If life is a gift, it’s an unsolicited one so I’d say give it six months and if it’s unclaimed, it is yours to do with as you see fit. The petulant teenager protesting: “I didn’t ask to be born” may have a point; we are born to ease the debt burden of our forebears, but to whom is it owed?

“After all, we do owe everything we are to others. This is simply true. The language we speak and even think in, our habits and opinions, the kind of food we like to eat, the knowledge that makes our lights switch on and toilets flush, even the style in which we carry out our gestures of defiance and rebellion against social conventions, all of this we learned from other people, most of them long dead. If we were to imagine what we owe them as a debt, it could only be infinite. The question is: Does it really make sense to think of this as a debt? After all, a debt is by definition something that we could at least imagine paying back. It is strange enough to wish to be square with one’s parents, it rather implies that one does not wish to think of them as parents anymore. Would we really want to be square with all humanity? What would that even mean? And is this desire really a fundamental feature of all human thought?

– David Graeber: ‘Debt: The first 5000 years’.

I wouldn’t be here now but for friends who cared about me enough to keep me alive; some of them didn’t make it this far themselves so I won’t be paying them back. Nor do I count the cost with the people I care about; there are no transactions between equals.

Theology being the study of God, the science of the divine, it has to confine its investigations to those aspects of scripture that cannot be tested. A great deal of time and effort has gone into this. In our case, referring to sacred texts, we might speculate on the colour and finish of the glaze, the style of handle, the length of the spout or diameter of the lid, but the existence of the teapot is never up for dispute. If we were to examine too closely the circumstances under which it could have been launched on its orbit we would risk accusations of heresy, that we wished to know rather than simply believe.

“The study of theology, as it stands in Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and it admits of no conclusion. Not anything can be studied as a science, without our being in possession of the principles upon which it is founded; and as this is the case with Christian theology, it is therefore the study of nothing.”

– Thomas Paine: The Age of Reason.

Perhaps the reluctance of some people to let go of hierarchy, dominance and transaction is a residue of childhood religion, a component of formal education in most societies, so the life of the citizen begins by making compromises with reason. We were taught Physics in one classroom, and mythology in the next, for a serious purpose. The lot of a sentient being is to be born into a world that barely accommodates our material needs, and is woefully inadequate to the desires and aspirations sentient beings must have. However much they ponder life they have little control over it as an individual and it soon comes to an end. The finality of death cracks a bigger whip than any human master, so death must be shrouded in mysticism, get that in early enough and it can be tacked on to any crank world-view as you go along. The obvious conclusion that the main obstacle to satisfaction is society itself must be suppressed. A rich and engaging fantasy life is indispensible both as a palliative and a constraint, from the stained-glass window to the magazine, the cinema, television, X-box and I-phone.

As exploitation became less direct, and the power relations were obscured, so the fantasies have grown more elaborate and intrusive. The feudal warlord would have had at his disposal most of the hypothetical punishments of the gargoyles of the pit: whips, chains and branding-irons; whereas paradise for the peasant amounted to little more than green pastures, abundance of food and respite from toil. The latter-day religious demagogue recruits misfits via youtube and twitter to create hell on earth. Nurtured in a culture of graphic but two-dimensional violence, they will have participated in fantasy genocide and performed any number of mock assassinations long before they reach adulthood – if they ever do.

The resurgence of mediaevalism in the twenty-first century is puzzling to the liberal mind. Before they get all superior, I contend that modern, secular societies are set up to be as fundamentally theological and superstitious as ever, perhaps even more than pre-technological ones. If it were not so, you wouldn’t have to spend six weeks of each year listening to bloody Christmas music at the shops, following close on the Holy Month of Halloween. Traditional feasts and Saint’s days performed important social functions that are now taken care of by facebook. In 1967 Guy Debord wrote:

“The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.”

– Guy Debord: ‘The Society of the Spectacle’

Could he have imagined what was in store? Maybe that was why he shot himself in 1994. Debord’s little book is not an easy read, like most things translated directly from French to English the language creaks a bit. I’ve struggled with it several times in different translations – it’s worth persevering, as it’s basically a sequel to Marx’s Capital.

Marx used metaphysical language to describe the commodity with good reason. Commodity fetishism is the mechanism by which the worthiness or otherwise of any human behaviour, once the province of morality and religion, is decided by the relative exchange-values of things. These values determine whether your benefits will be sanctioned for missing a jobcentre appointment and which country NATO will invade next. It’s Debord’s Spectacle that, in a more blatantly aquisitive, materialistic and amoral world, obscures the underlying commodity-relations and makes them appear as rational or ethical human choices.

In my brief summary of Capital I compared commodity fetishism to primitive religion in quite a superficial, simplistic way, but things have moved on a bit since I wrote it. The mobile phone, which started out as a badge of status, signalling your activities were so important you had to be instantly contactable, eventually persuaded us it might have some practical use*. A sort of etiquette developed, people were persuaded to turn them off in restaurants and meetings, the advent of the camera phone led to a ban in schools, sports centres and swimming pools. That lasted about six months, then they gave up trying to enforce it. As soon as the mobile device granted continuous access to the Internet it became the new cigarette.

*If you’re habitually late and drive a twenty year old car, yes, but I won’t talk to you while I’m taking a crap.

People film everything; they film instead of looking, then stick it on the Internet as an offering to Social Media, the all-seeing eye of God. They even film themselves committing crime – confession, maybe? Online gaming and pornography are rituals, connecting the individual to something that is not self, but not specifically human either, call it meditation if you like, the sound of one hand clapping. The ceremonial nature of pornography is inarguable, as predictable as a Catholic Mass.

“According to Debord, the spectacle is the triumph of semblance and of sight, where the image replaces reality. Debord mentions television only by way of example; for him the spectacle is a development of that real abstraction which dominates commodity society, based on pure quantity. But if we are immersed in an ocean of uncontrollable images which prevent our having access to reality, then it would seem to be yet more audacious to say that this reality has itself totally disappeared and that the situationists were still too timid and too optimistic, now that the process of abstraction has devoured all of reality and the spectacle is today even more spectacular and more totalitarian than it was ever imagined to be, carrying its crimes to the extreme of assassinating reality itself.”

Anselm Jappe: ‘The Metaphysical Subleties of the Commodity”

If a tree falls in the forest, and no-one tweets about it, does it really fall?

As one set of victims harks back to the middle ages, albeit a techno-version, another is fascinated by zombies and vampires. Adult men and women while away their hard-earned leisure time peering into a dystopian fantasy rather than looking out the window at the dystopian reality. There are two aspects of the cult of the undead that interest me – apart from this mass retreat into infantilism, or perhaps I should say the wholesale herding of the masses into it.

The first is the substantive metaphor: we inhabit the disintegrating corpse of a dead civilisation; the ideas and values that underpinned its institutions are long-discredited and held only ironically, if at all. It dimly remembers its history, and tries forlornly to return to where it last felt alive. It shambles on inexorably, feeds on our muscles and brains, and infects us with its banality and cynicism. The vampire is of course the commodity, the shiny, innocent representative of abstract and mostly futile social labour. The limitless creative and practical abilities of human beings, wastefully alienated from them and converted into exchange-values: “Dead labour sucking living labour”, as Marx put it. It’s often not even a thing, but an experience, a service, an identity or other pretence, rendered worthless instantly the transaction is complete.

What is the relationship between these monsters? The vampire of legend was a fiend, an evil spirit, but through fiction to film and recent television incarnations has been rehabilitated. A comic or even romantic figure, and where the parastite is attractive, entertaining and seductive would it not be churlish to resent the draining of your lifeblood?

“Also shall be qualified as attempted murder the employment which may be made by any person of substances which, without causing actual death, produce a lethargic coma more or less prolonged. If, after the administering of such substances, the person has been buried, the act shall be considered murder no matter what result follows”

– Article 246 of the Haitian criminal code 1864

Now the traditional zombie of African-Haitian folklore, the soulless person controlled by witchcraft, could just have been a metaphor for slavery itself. The modern zombie, entirely the creation of Hollywood, is entranced not by witchcraft but by an all-pervading and probably man-made disease. It’s uncannily like the modern worker; sleepwalking on their pointless daily routine through a dream-like misrepresentation of reality, desperate to consume. They are not the slaves of men, but of the commodity.

Secondly, they are both us and not us; any member of our society infected becomes the other, a universal enemy to be feared and destroyed by any and all means. It turns out there is a huge appetite for such an enemy, for grabbing a shotgun and blowing the head off the boy next door, with no comeback and no remorse. There are countless examples of popular culture and mass media creating dastardly villains to justify our worst impulses, and religion may well have originated the idea, but the zombie epitomises the alien amongst us, the alien within us, our alienated selves, our self-disgust at what capitalism has made of us. We long for someone to take it out on, for the apocalypse to put us out of our misery.

I’m not a Christian but it seemed like the message of Christ was: “if you want peace, treat everyone equal, share everything out and forgive your enemies”; how did that morph into “join our gang or we’ll set fire to you”? Or: “God hates blacks, gays and women”. Someone else’s God hates Catholics, or Protestants, Jews, Shias, Sunnis, Kurds, Hindus; what do you think makes someone get up in the morning and blow themselves up in someone else’s place of worship? Fucking grow up.

I make no apology for concatenating religion, mythology and light entertainment; I hope I’ve shown they all serve the same purpose in the long run. Don’t get me started on football.

As for the universe, if it didn’t have sentient beings in it no one would ever get to hear about it, so it would be a pretty pointless exercise; in that sense it owes its existence to us, let’s give ourselves the benefit of the doubt – and beware of the dogma.

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