Role of Religion in Human History: Interview with Alexander Saxton


Editor’s Note: Alexander Saxton is the author of Religion and the Human Prospect (Monthly Review 2006). He is a labor and cultural historian, retired from the University of California Los Angeles and has authored five other books, including The Rise and Fall of the White Republic (Verso, 1993) and The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California.

PA: What was the inspiration for Religion and the Human Prospect?

AS: The resurgence of religion in the period since the end of World War II. This reproduced on a world scale the situation of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries when it was decimated by religious wars. Religious conflict, interlocking with economic and political disputes, vastly intensified their destructiveness. That was what led me to start working on this book, which came late in my career. Starting from the first book I wrote, which was in the 1940’s, my attention had not at all been focused on religion. I was secular in my attitudes. I wrote about social and economic problems, especially the problem of racial discrimination and white racist ideology, which had an enormous role in labor conflict. All my first five books centered in one way or another on this subject. When I retired I had just published The Rise and Fall of the White Republic. At that point, I shifted focus to what seemed an equally important and dangerous problem. I began working on Religion and the Human Prospect in 1990. But since I had little background in religious studies, I had a lot of homework to do.

PA: The book’s focus is on the question of whether or not religion serves as a “saving resource for humanity,” and your conclusion appears to be that it has indeed been integral to human survival. Can you explain what that means?

AS: I argue that religion served beneficially as an adaptive trait through all human history up till recent times. Here I am borrowing a term from biological evolution. Religion was adaptive -- that is, beneficial -- to human dominance in the global food-chain, for a variety of reasons. But these were historical reasons. We are talking mostly not about biology, but about 'cultural evolution' -- that is, human history. When the particular historical time period came to an end -- when factors determining the possibilities inherent in this time period changed -- then religion would cease to be beneficial and become dysfunctional or counter-adaptive. That makes the conclusion of the book; and that is why I say religion -- advantageous to the human species through most of history -- has now become a negative, or destructive attribute.

PA: Can you give examples of how you see religion as 'adaptive'?

AS: Yes. I am proposing that religion came into existence as a defense against the terror felt by human animals when first they experienced consciousness. Consciousness is generally seen as unique to the human species. One might describe other animals as conscious in a certain sense, but if by consciousness we mean awareness of the self as an individual being that it is bound to die, then humans seem unique in this respect. Arrival at consciousness was the result of biological evolution. Consciousness provided humans with biological advantages over other species because it enabled planned actions and long range strategies. Essentially, it was consciousness that led to the construction of culture; thence to human history. Yet consciousness contained a major flaw, which was that it opened each individual to the necessity of death and locked that person into a continuing confrontation with the terror of death.

And this, I think, is the origin of religion. Somewhere along the evolutionary line, a proto-human animal conceived the idea of benevolent spiritual beings existing in nature, in the universe -- conscious beings with whom one communicated, and who would treat humans as special, because humans were conscious, and 'spiritual.' The disabling terror of death was countered by discovering spiritual beings -- gods -- thought to be both superhuman and supernatural. Religious belief becomes, at this point, an adaptive cultural trait, a saving resource for the species. Belief will spread rapidly because individuals believing in supernatural guidance function more effectively than non-believers; and because groups or tribes that adopt religion are more likely to be successful at warfare than their adversaries. For this reason, tribes -- (and nations!) -- that embrace religion tend to prevail over others; and religion will soon become worldwide.

PA: You seem to be saying religion unites the human species?

AS: No, not that. Being religious doesn't mean everybody believes in the same god. Religion is divisive. Once belief itself becomes widespread, it introduces new sets of problems. If you believe in spiritual beings thought to be benevolent and powerful, yet all the old evils continue -- famine and flood, sickness, suffering, war; above all, death! -- then you need some explanation, or you will be impelled to abandon your belief, which (by this time) would be a difficult and scary thing to do. The escape from this dilemma is to invoke an opposing force, a spiritual power called Satan, or the Devil, or the Evil Empire. I am arguing that religious belief more or less inevitably generates belief in a power of Evil because that helps to explain why bad things keep happening in life even though our gods are doing the best they can for us.. Evil now appears as a separate domain, capable of influencing humans beings by recruiting them as agents or confederates. This is profoundly divisive. Its effect is to escalate ordinary social and economic conflicts -- which, after all, are inevitable in human relations -- into crusades, so that political, economic opponents become not only opponents at those levels, but agents of the Evil Empire, therefore demanding absolute destruction.

We see this divisive effect throughout history, both in wars between nations, and in class conflict inside nations. When religion becomes formally established, with churches and doctrines and professionalized priesthoods, it gains such wealth and power that its clergy usually links itself to the ruling class. There might be situations when belief could play a different role, for example, if one country has conquered another, and religion serves as a liberating element on behalf of the oppressed, or colonized, or exploited groups. But the more general situation, historically, has been that religions -- once they become institutionalized and established -- align themselves with ruling classes, and work effectively in their behalf.

PA: These are broad generalizations. Can you get specific?

AS: The most specific example of religion's divisive power is wars between nations. When President Truman gave the order to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima/ Nagasaki I have no doubt he believed he was obeying God's will; and throughout all the multitudinous churches in the United States that decision was scarcely questioned or criticized. In war -- for both sides -- religion provides effective tools for demonizing the enemy.

PA: Yes, I get that part. But you began be saying religion is beneficial -- you used the term, adaptive -- for the human species as a whole. Isn't that contradictory?

AS: It sounds contradictory, but unfortunately it's quite logical. The QED goes like this. One of the ways human societies increase their command over nature has been by developing new technologies in war. Nations-at-war usually believe they are on God's side, fighting against EVIL. Religious belief turns wars into crusades. This works adaptively because it provides high voltage stimulation for new technology. If you want recent examples, just think of radar, or blood plasma, or jet-powered aircraft, or the orbiting of satellites. Of course wars wipe out huge numbers of people, but so long as the species itself survives, new technologies spread through and stimulate cultural development-at-large. Even very destructive wars, like the American Civil War or First World War, provide leads to future growth -- thus enhancing human technological dominance over all the other species that occupy biological earth.

PA: Would you call that adaptive?

AS: Biologically, that is what adaptive means. This is why we need to see the interconnection of religion with war and technology, because it so strikingly illustrates how religion developed through cultural evolution -- often in contradictory ways -- to favor the dominance of the human species.

PA: You said there is a time limit?

AS: Historically, nothing lasts forever. All this developed within a historical period that was characterized by two essential factors: first, the capacity to wage ferocious warfare without totally destroying the human species; and second, enough elbow room to permit accelerating industrial growth wiithout at the same time poisoning the ecological envelope in which life exists. Both these historical conditions ended shortly after the Second World War. Hiroshima/Nagasaki, followed by worldwide nuclear testing, made clear that our capacity to fight postmodern wars also conveyed power to destroy biological life on earth. If to this we add ecological crises, first obviously visible in the decade after the war, then we can say that the era during which religion worked adaptively for human survival (beginning from the earliest beginnings of history) bottomed out finally in the 1950s and '60s.

PA:You want people to give up religious belief?

AS. The conclusion of my book is that survival of our species requires that we learn to live without religion.

PA: Could you state in two sentences why you say religion is destructive?

AS: First: Religion is destructive because it divides humanity into US versus the EVIL EMPIRE. Second: Religion is destructive because it promotes an illusion that believing in Spiritual Beings will save us from ecological burnout and nuclear/biological warfare.

PA: Well, I think I understand your argument. Whether or not I agree with it is a different matter. Can we move now to another part of your book?

AS: Why not?

PA: You have outlined a Marxist critique of religion, but in your book you also criticize the traditional Marxist view, especially that of Marx and Engels. Could you say how you think they got their critique wrong?

AS: First of all, Marxism, early in the 19th century, was really the inheritor (not inventer) of a secularist and materialist view of history, which it took over and developed from what has recently been described as the left wing of the Enlightenment. Marx and Engels began as followers of Hegelian philosophy which was idealist and religious. When they moved to a materialist stance, they had to reject Hegel's understanding of religion (especially Christian religion) as the ground, or matrix, for philosophical Enlightenment. By contrast, for Marx and Engels, religion became the root of reactionary ideology through which contemporary philosophers were trying to justify human exploitation (as in slavery, feudalism, or the newly-emergent system of capitalism). To refute and overthrow these reactionary ideolological constructions, Marx and Engels thought it necessary to begin with an all-out critique of religion, and that indeed was the starting point of their earliest writings. My complaint is simply that the critique was never carried through to a logical outcome. I hardly blame Marx and Engels for this. Their priority was the analysis of capitalism to which they devoted the absolute maximum of their intellectual and physical resources -- and for which we remain forever in their debt. I concede that putting aside their critique of religion was, under the circumstances, unavoidable; although I think that project ought to have remained on the agenda for later Marxist and materialist thinkers.

PA: What needs to be changed in the Marxian critique?

AS: Marxists usually assume that religion is approximately like Christianity as it was in the early nineeteenth century. That is, they take Judaeo-Christian monotheism as an 'ideal type,' or prototype, of all religion. They get this from Hegel. It fits neatly into ideological arguments that make religion part of the apparatus of ruling class domination. These doubtless are accurate descriptions of the way religion works in class societies. But they lack historical depth because they contain no account of the origin of religion. Early Marxists conceived ideology as obscurantist: it was how a ruling class manipulated ideas about law, government, philosophy (especially about religion) to obscure the exploitive power of the ruling class. This makes ideology a product of class conflict; but class conflict could not have begun -- and Marx and Engels did not think it began -- early in history. Human societies had to have existed a long time before you get to a division of labor that could make classes, and class exploitation, possible. And if religion began only at that point, there would remain a long gap in the so-called hunter-gatherer period (of which Marx and Engels were well aware and sometimes referred to as 'primitive communism') before religion could have emerged or assumed any significant cultural role. Yet obviously religion must have existed during this long time span. Then, what was it doing? What was its function in the evolution of human culture? This is the area I think needs to be explored in a Marxist critique of religion.

Why is this worth bothering about? The intellectual goal of the entire Marxian movement has been to construct a materialist interpretation of history. Religious or spiritual belief negates materialist interpretation. Consequently, in order to claim any sort of persuasive power, a materialist interpretation of history must begin with a secular and materialist explanation for the origin of religion. That was exactly where Marx and Engels began, but were obliged to postpone the task; and later Marxists have not filled the gap. My own book is an attempt to reopen this part of the agenda.

PA: How do you address the concerns of religious and spiritual people on the Left, even the Marxist Left, that such a critique of religion could divide the progressive counter to the real and immediate dangers posed by fundamentalist movements and political forces that use religion in negative ways?

AS: I discussed this problem with various groups, academic and working class, while working on my book. The reality is that the vast majority of the world's population accepts religion. We take this for granted in the United States. But it is clear that religion also shapes the politics of large parts of Latin America, Asia, Africa, the Middle East. Western Europe may be more secular but the difference is one of degree. Beneath this chaotic map of religious alignments lies the hard-rock map of economic exploitation. Guided at this point by its Anglo-American connections, capitalism is preparing to install a global network of profit-maximizing regimes-- untrammelled by social or ecological restraints -- that will surpass anything previously experienced in modern history. Religion, traditionally, has been most solidly based in industrial and agricultural working classes or recently-urbanized rural populations. Precisely these groups will suffer most heavily under capitalism's 'free market' empire. They will be trapped between exploitation that provokes desperate outbreaks and endless poverty that seeks refuge in faith. Resistance groups similar to liberation theology seem certain to make a comeback.

PA: So is this the right time to open an attack on religion?

AS: Well, maybe it is. Resistance groups, working in the tradition of liberation theology, will invoke religious precepts like the Golden Rule in defense of exploited working people. But to stand against their own reactionary clergies, they will need powers of demonstration that can come only from outside religion. Liberationists inside will need to collaborate with non-believers outside. Might there be signals exchanged, then, simply at the level of human survival? Believers and non-believers, actually, have a lot in common. They both are vulnerable to so-called 'worldly loves.' (Yet note how negative a connotation religion attaches to that luminous phrase!) They both are likely to feel parental affections normally held for children, as well as that irresistible romantic sympathy with young people in love -- hoping things might go well for them! It is these overlaps of shared experience, I think, that contain our best hopes for resolving the crises of the twenty-first century this side of global disaster.

But I want to express this same idea in more general terms. All great movements of history have brought people together to work for immediate, urgent purposes, even while they might be disagreeing on other matters. What was crucial was not total agreement but confidence and honest disclosure. We are all better off because people like Tom Paine and Robert Ingersoll dared speak frankly about religion. And we would all be a lot better off today if the Marxist critique of religion could have been completed fifty years ago.

PA: Let me finish up with what may be a controversial proposition that you pose. Let me quote from your book. “Institutions of class control, habits of domination, and acquisitive individualism have sunk deep roots in human culture, perhaps human biology as well.” You suggest that a strict separation between culture and biology is no longer feasible. That kind of proposition seems controversial, and sometimes has been pressed into the service of deplorable claims about the biological essence of race, gender, nationality, class, etc. I wonder if you would explain the proposition you are making, keeping those kinds of claims in mind?

AS: I began my career as a historian firmly convinced there was an absolute division between biology and culture. Long before that, as an undergraduate in college, I had read Franz Boas, who in his great book The Mind of Primitive Man showed that so-called 'primitive' languages are capable of the same precision in physical, logical and moral expression as the most modern of modern languages. He used this line of argument to reject biological racism and refute the then-widely held beliefs in 'essentialist' differences among differing 'racial' (and gender) populations of the human species. Of course as you indicate in your question, many such beliefs are still held today; but Boas was absolutely correct in rejecting them. He died in the 1940s. Since then there have been extraordinary breakthroughs in fields of linguistics, genetics, evolutionary biology, archaeology, early anthropology. The entire picture has changed since Boas' time. Were he still alive I am sure he would welcome and rejoice in these breakthroughs. They reinforce his conclusions about race and racial differences although they render obsolete some of his leading assumptions. One of these was that of a sharp dividing line between biological evolution and human culture. I have already acknowledged that was my own starting point, but that stance is no longer tenable. What we see now is not two separate realms, but a complex overlapping and interpenetration by various processes of evolutionary change. Culture is biological -- although biology is not necessarily cultural. But for the human animal culture became an essential part of its biological equipment. We were talking earlier about adaptive traits. Culture, for humans, is THE chief adapative trait, directly responsible for their dominating role in the biology of planet Earth.

You say in your question that racists and sexists use biological arguments. Of course they do, but that does not make their arguments valid or persuasive. Racists and sexists have been drawing false arguments from religion, history, culture, biology, for the past 3- or 400 years. So we reject them. In my own case, what convinced me as to the interpenetration of culture with biology was the work of Noam Chomsky, whom no one certainly could accuse of being racist, sexist, anti-democratic or libertarian. Chomsky, in his research on the origin of language, presents cultural continuities (like language) as beginning within evolutionary biology and then developing, not separately from biology, but as part of the ongoing process of cultural evolution. My own treatment of religion in this book represents an attempt to construct a comparable explanation for the origin and development of religion. Yes, it IS part of culture; but also an adaptive trait which enhances the survival-power of the human species, up till, of course, the historical change we have already discussed. Making culture part of biological process does not mean subordinating culture to biology. On the contrary, culture is the apex, the culmination.

PA: Is progress part of human nature then?

AS: I think progress is possible, but that it has to be separated from any concept of a transcendent or spiritual force. Possible, but not inevitable. Possible to the extent that human culture develops ideas such as the responsibility of persons to one another in social organization, as the prerequisite to any kind of democratic or egalitarian society. Progress is possible in culture as part of biology, but it has to emanate from what the human mind constructs and confirms as desirable. It can’t flow down from some spiritual power imagined to be governing human development to some particular way. In other words, progress is what cultural evolution, potentially, can create. Impressive beginnings have been made in science; to a lesser extent in social organization, ecological responsibility, moral egalitarianism.

I titled the last chapter of my book, 'Jerusalem,' in response to the great poem by Blake that contains the lines,

And was Jerusalem builded here Amid these dark Satanic mills?

I take Jerusalem as a metaphor for progress. For me -- secularist and nonbeliever -- Jerusalem refers metaphorically to the human community after it has groped through those moral identifications that move from family to tribe, to nation, to humanity-at-large; after it has arrived at some self-sustaining balance with natural habitat; after it discovers that survival requires not only an egalitarian politics inside the species but physical and moral bonding to earth's multitudinous fellow travelers. Jerusalem, in my metaphor, means not Augustine's city but the city of earth in all its evolutionary fragility.