Monday, May 30, 2011

Socialism and Religion - 1 -E. Belfort Bax

It is sometimes said that Socialism is neither religious nor irreligious. This does not or should not mean that Socialism fails to come into contact with the views of the world and of life which thecurrent religions furnish, orthat at a particular stage inits progress it may not take up a position even of active hostility to those religions. What it means is that Socialism implies a state of society out and away beyond the barren speculative polemics of thehour.
Socialism is essentially,neither religions nor irreligious, inasmuch as it re-affirms the unity of human life, abolishing the dualism which has lain at the foundation of all the great ethical religions. By this dualism I mean the antithesis of politics and religion, of the profane and the sacred, of matter and spirit, of this world and the “other world,” andthe various subordinate antagonisms to which these have given rise, or which they implicitly contain. Hitherto the whole tendency of our society and thought has been to make of aspects ofthings, distinguishable if you will, but not legitimately separable, separate and more or less opposed principles. We will take only the instance which most concerns the subject-matter of these remarks. The feelings, aspirations, emotions, (as we chose to call them), after the ideal, which constitute the “religious sentiment,” are very easily distinguishable from the impulses of kindliness, friendship, duty, &c., to individuals which ought toanimate our daily life. They are distinguishable but not separable. Yet the current religions erect them into distinct principles, severing the “religious sentiment” fromall connection with the world and human society and transferring it to an imagined supernatural “world” which is nothing but a grotesque travesty of the relations of this world. It is curious to trace how this came about. In the most ancient civilisations there is no distinction between the political or social and the religious, simply because religion was then nothing more than the propitiationof dead ancestors, powers of nature, fetiches or othersupposed supernatural agents (whose existence passed unquestioned to the human mind in its then stage) in the interestsof the society. These ancestral ghosts, personified powers, or animated fetiches were as often immoral as not, in fact it would be more correct to say that for them morality and immorality had no existence. The worshipper possibly cared not one jot for them or they for him – his worship was a social duty. The only way in which they possessed any human interest was as embodying certain powers, which might be noxious or beneficient to the State . We have spoken of them as being “propitiated” and “worshipped” but it is doubtful if those terms canhe applied with regard to the ancient religious cults more than very partially. The practices they embodied were rather those of compulsory invocation or regulation by means of magical spellsand incantations than prayers and “services” suchas are understood to-day. The social festivals were asmuch religious as they were political. Political andreligious functions were necessarily united in the same persons since every religions act was political, every political act also religious.
The forgoing remarks apply in all essentials, to every primitive civilisation,to ancient India, Egypt, China, Syria, Palestine. Even in later classical times, religion was still a social and political matter, a thing of this world only or mainly. The most sacredforms of the Greek and Roman cults were those identified with the preservation of the city, of the tribe and of the gens . Undoubting as was men’s belief in the existence of the supernatural, it only interested them in so far as they conceived it to affect the community of which they were a part. The supernatural too, was as yet imperfectly distinguished from the natural. There was no religion of the supernatural as such . But with the decay of the old civic morality and the absorption of the small free States into centralised monarchies and finally into the Roman Empire, men came to care less and less for the body politic and fell back more and more upon themselves as individuals. At first this individualism took the form of a search among the leisured and educated class for the higher life of wisdom. The Stoic, the Epicurean and the Cynic had each his special receiptfor slipping through life as comfortably as possible. But this, though satisfactory for a time, palled in the long run. The Roman Empire got ever more corrupt, its corruption ramifying through all its branches; public life became more and more vapid; the old religions, once instinctive with meaning, were but empty forms; the newer panaceas of the philosophers failed to afford satisfaction. The utmost they promised wasto make the best of the doubtful bargain – life.
But the sense of individualism was too strong for this merely negative creed. Men sought in vain for an object in life collective or individual.

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