Religion: Its Origin and Role

C G Shah

Ideologically, Religion is an error, an unscientific, untrue explanation of the phenomena and processes of the natural and social worlds. Socially, Religion has always been an instrument of bondage and oppression of the exploited classes by the exploiting ones. Religion, the buttress of social reaction, political, oppression and economic exploitation, has always been supported and strengthened, both physically and financially, by the ruling classes of the world, in all epochs and all lands.
But what is the genesis of all religious ideologies, of all metaphysical, mystical and other allied religious concepts? What are the historical conditions and roots these. unscientific ideologies, of all God-cults and Ghost-cults, of all subjective imaginings and metaphysical dreamings, of all religious and religio-ethical poisonings and emasculating of vast masses of mankind for ages leading to a retarding of the growth of all scientific human knowledge and of intensified class-slavery in the social world ? This is the fundamental problem in the study of all religions and religious ideologies and their role in the history of the social struggles of humanity across ages.  
Ideas are the prod net of the material conditions in which man lives; so religious ideas evolved on the basis of certain specific social-material conditions in which humanity lived. What was the stage of social development, what were the social-material conditions in which mankind lived, when Religion and religious ideas sprouted in the mind of man? This tracing of the origin of religions ideas to its specific historical roots will not only help us to know the social causes which led to the evolution of religious ideas but will also enable us to lay down and predict certain social conditions when religious ideas will cease to sway the human mind, will decline, wither away and die. Such an analysis will reveal and make certain the social and transitory character of the origin and life of all Religions and Religious Ideologies. The supposed Immortal God and Everlasting Religion of all religious God-haunted people, when examined through the objective lens of scientific Marxist thought, turns out to be tinsel, monstrous momentary illusions which arose in the imagination of man at a certain stage of his social existence, and which will vanish at a definite social stage. God and Religion turn out not only to be transitory historical categories, rising at a certain stage of the historical development of the human race, rising as mis-reflections in the mind of man of the complex, multifold, multiform and ever transforming processes in the natural and social worlds and doomed to disappear when other social conditions arise.  

But what were the specific social conditions which gave rise to religious psychology and ideology? And also what have been and will be the specific social circumstances which have undermined and will undermine and finally liquidate this psychology and ideology?  
God and the whole complex of religious idea, attitudes and moods is the product of man’s terror, ignorance of and helplessness before the forces of natural and social worlds (these weaknesses originating in technological weakness of man). Primitive savage humanity, ignorant of the laws of movement of its natural environs and of its own social organization, terror-stricken and mystified at the cataclysmic action of the devastating forces of Nature like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, this primitive savage humanity, by a process of psychological abstraction, abstracted and transformed its own qualities of weakness and ignorance into their opposites i.e. strength and knowledge, almightiness and omniscience and named it God. The God-concept, for the primitive savage humanity, was only a transformation into its opposite, the positive deified interpretation of man’s own negative qualities of ignorance and terror, wonder and helplessness, regarding the colossal, un-mastered and un-deciphered phenomena in the world around him and in which he lived.  

Primitive humanity had not found out the material essence of the Universe, had not understood the developing nature of the world, and had not known the dialectical manner in which the whole world-historical process was developing. Primitive humanity had not attained an understanding of how astronomical evolution had brought planet earth into existence, how geological evolution on the planet earth at a certain stage had produced conditions like water, cooling of earth’s temperature etc., when Life became possible and evolved. Primitive humanity did not know the history of life, how the whole process of evolution of life culminated finally in the birth of human species. Neither did primitive humanity understand what were the driving forces of all evolution, of evolution even of the collective social ( herd ) organization in which it then lived. The Natural Sciences viz. Astronomy, Physics, Chemistry, Biology etc., were still to be developed to offer a scientific understanding of the Universe. It was in the process of centuries of strenuous struggle for existence arid growth, against his natural environs that man accumulated scientific knowledge of the world as a means to understand, master and transform to its use that world.  

So God-concept and Religious ideology were the product of man’s ignorance of the natural and social worlds, of man’s capitulation before the forces of these worlds, of man’s unawareness of the laws governing the development of these worlds and therefore also man’s own development. In absence of scientific understanding, the mind of man explained things regarding himself, his origin, the natural and social worlds which surrounded him and which he developed in a grotesque bizarre and uncanny way. Such was the origin of God-idea and all Religious ideologies in primitive society.  

Having once originated and taken root in man’s ignorance of the forces of Natural and Social worlds and of their laws of transformation, the God-concept and Religious ideology took different shapes in different periods of human existence. Different Religions, Religious Philosophies and concepts of God arose in different epochs on the basis of changes going on in the social structure of mankind. It is necessary to understand how in the process of material struggle for existence against Nature,-the contradiction between Nature and Man, he developed technological and scientific knowledge of the Natural World which along with his own labour-power constituted his material productive forces, how these productive forces determined the economic structure of human society as also the ideological life of man, how the condition of social-material forces in which mankind lived in a particular period determined the form of the ideology of the period including the form of God-concept and Religious Thought. Such an analysis will help us to understand not only why Religions ideas dominated man in particular periods but also why man was dominated in these periods only by particular religious ideas, why a specific concept of God or Gods, a specific Religion or Religious ideology prevailed in a particular historical epoch. As historical materialism teaches us, backward conditions of social existence gave birth to Religion and changes, in these conditions bring about changes in the concept of Religion.  

Later, as a result of the development of productive forces of mankind of the increased knowledge of technique of means of production and of increased productive power, collectivist prehistoric tribal society was dissolved giving place to class-stratified society, slave society being generally the first form of such a society in different parts of the world. It is necessary and useful to understand why certain concepts of God and specific religions ideologies prevailed in the environs of a particular class society, why these concepts perished and were replaced by another set religious concepts when the change in the ever-developing productive forces of society brought about reorganization of society though invariably after revolutionary political explosion, and an armed struggle between classes on a different economic and on a different class relation basis. But the most significant and all important fact with which one is confronted while retrospecting the history of religions and religious ideologies in all their transformations, is the reactionary role they have invariably played.  

In all class societies, slave, feudal or modern capitalist, Religion by its very nature has been the ideological weapon in the hands of the exploiting classes to ‘opiate’ the exploited classes. Religion has always been the ‘handmaid’ of the oppressing, exploiting, property owning, socially dominant class. Religion attempted to neutralize class struggle the fighting out of which to its finish can alone lead to the emancipation of the masses from the grip of exploitation. Religion, by preaching nebulous humanitarian ethics and by side-tracking attention to mythical Other Worlds, blinds the oppressed and exploited classes to the brutal fact of class struggle and class exploitation, and plants illusions of class-co-operation among them, thus weakening their growing will to smash the system of exploitation.  

Further, in spite of the great advance of the Natural Sciences which have decisively exploded all religious explanations of the world exposing them as so many lies and errors, in spite of the scientific formulation, for the first time, of the laws of Social Evolution by Marx, the first scientific Sociologist in history, Religious ideas are still not liquidated among the people. There is a deep reason for this. The unplanned state of the economic life of mankind, the anarchy prevailing in the social world, the conscious attempts of the dominant class to perpetuate religious terror with a view to keep the masses stupefied and submissive to their rule and exploitation by all instruments at their disposal like the school, press, stage, cinema, radio, these are some of the principle causes why Religion still maintains its grip over the general mass of people.

 Courtesy: Reason; Dec 1931