Louis Althusser


Is religion a primary historical cause, or is it a way of deflecting and concealing other, more important matters such as economics and class, or it is an obfuscation of what is really going on, whether imperial control or class interest? The answer should not get caught up on the dilemma of idealism and materialism, but rather begin with the problem of relatedness. Rather than separating the different areas of religion, politics or even class too sharply, we might adopt an Althusserian approach in which each domain is semi-autonomous: economics, social relations (class), politics, culture, education, philosophy, and religion are all semi-autonomous realms. Add to this the fact that the ideological members of the group, in which religion is to be included, are inseparably connected with material institutional structures; this means that ideology takes a very concrete form.

I am quite enamoured with such an Althusserian position, but I would like to take it further, stressing, if you like, the ‘semi’ over against the ‘autonomous’. We are far too accustomed to beginning with the autonomous side of the equation and then need to work overtime to establish the connections between them. But what if we began with the assumed connections and overlaps, or the ‘semi’ side of ‘semi-autonomous’? One benefit would be to recast a common narrative for dealing with pre-modern and modern societies. The narrative goes as follows: before the differentiation of capitalism, in which each area is distinguished as an autonomous zone, people did not operate with clearly demarcated realms of economics, politics, religion and what have you. Religion was political and social and economic at the same time. However, with the advent of capitalism (sometimes read as the ‘modern’ period), all of these realms became differentiated from one another. However, if we begin with the assumption that such domains are not discrete but entwined with one other, indeed that they form a collective whole even within capitalism, then the issue is not how they relate to one another but how they may be distinguished.

Picture the scene: a polite philosophy seminar with a paper given by a young, dishevelled and chain-smoking scholar, who declares not only that philosophy is class struggle in theory, but quotes Lenin’s description of academic philosophers as ‘flunkeys and dunces’ . Outrage, shuffling, a few leave, how dare he!