Religion, liberation and oppression

This article looks at why religions can appear to be a source of division, violence and war.   It’s useful to understand the difference between a religion, and the corruption and manipulation of that religion to support the established social order.

From what I can see, many religions started out as an attempt by a group of people to organise their thinking and make explicit their understanding of their world. These attempts were very successful for their time – they did help people think better and more consistently than they had been able to before. However, they were not perfect. Just like every other new mode of thought, they were limited by the level of social, scientific and technical understanding humans had attained in the period in which the religion first arose.

It’s likely that one of the reasons that religions arose was to deal with difficult issues – that is, issues that the whole society struggled to think about clearly such as sex, the fair distribution of resources, or anti-social behaviour. Many of the new ideas that religions developed were good for their time, but they were limited. One limitation was that, often, people were not encouraged to think for themselves. Instead they were encouraged to follow the thinking of a leader (and the leaders did often have good ideas), or to follow a set of rules. This was often better than what had been happening before – otherwise the religion would never have been widely adopted in the first place. However, it was inherently limited: a set of rules is never as good as a flexible and creative intelligence, and following someone else’s mind uncritically means not using one’s own mind.

This limitation – of following a set of rules, or a leader’s thoughts, instead of thinking fully and freshly for one’s self – is shared by many political and social theories and practices in use today, if you look closely and ignore the rhetoric.

Because religions did help people live better lives, they became valued and trusted. Large numbers of people followed the rules of a religion or the thinking of its leaders.

Many religions started out as, basically, liberation movements arising from the people – hence the pro-human (often socialist) elements of almost every religion.  However, as each religion/liberation movement became more and more popular, it inevitably began to threaten the position of the ruling class. It became very attractive, necessary even, for the ruling class to take over the religion and turn it into an institution dedicated to propping up their rule.

The leaders of the religion were coerced or enticed (or simply replaced) so as to turn the religion into a tool to control the minds of the population. The trust that people had placed in the religion, based on its original role as a liberation movement, became a big liability. The practice of uncritically following a leader’s thinking, or a set of rules, was easily manipulated for social control.

This take-over and corruption of a religion, by the ruling class, is the major source of the anti-human elements of almost every religion.

The corruption of its original purpose led many people to become disillusioned with the religion. The most active of these people eventually left to form new religions, explicitly to reject the corruption of the original. Some of these new religions grew popular in turn, and so were themselves later taken over. This happened over and over again.

One chain of examples is proto-Christianity (led by Jesus of Nazareth) arising in response to the corruption of Judaism by the early Roman Empire, then Christianity itself being co-opted as the state religion of the later Roman Empire (the Roman Catholic Church), followed by Protestantism as a reaction to that.

[Note that other progressive movements have also been very attractive targets for co-option in a similar way – it’s not just religions. For example: many charities, the Labour Party as New Labour, trade unions, the women’s liberation movement used to promote/justify the presidential campaign of Hilary Clinton, the same with the anti-racism movement and Barak Obama …]

It’s useful to understand the difference between a religion, and the corruption and manipulation of that religion to support the established structure of a society. To think that it is religion that promotes, for example, war or violence is to misunderstand this relationship.

I am not religious, but I understand that most religions started out as liberation movements, and I respect that aspect of them, just as I respect all attempts at human liberation. Their roots in liberation can be seen as distinct from the distortions later introduced to prop up the established social order.


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