Is religion a primary cause (idealism) or secondary effect (materialism)?

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.


10 thoughts on “Is religion a primary cause (idealism) or secondary effect (materialism)?

  1. i take your point that “domains are not discrete but entwined with one other… even within capitalism”. Wouldn’t then another distinguishing line appear between those aspects of each domain that are functional within the system and those elements that exist as its ‘outside’? So culture and ideology persist in/for the perpetuation of capitalism, while each bearing a potentially dangerous excess that might disrupt it. Those on the ‘outside’ then relate to each other as a kind of ‘negation of negation’, with nothing similar to one another except their estrangement with their counterparts that are functional ‘inside’ the system.

    just some elementary thoughts with the ghosts of Althusser and Gramsci (with Raymond Williams tip-toeing in the background).

    1. The most interesting thing that Dipesh Chakrabarty said was that capitalism has produced nothing new (except fisting, but its invention in the 20th century is a curious by product of capitalism). Instead, it takes up various bits and pieces form earlier and other systems – money, private property, trade, etc – and combines them in a unique way, exacerbating certain features so that you get weird and wonderful things as a result. OK, so the combination is new, but none of the items are. All of which gets me to my point that the modes of resistance/excess may either be seen as produced by that combination in unexpected ways (Marx’s classical line that contradiction is generated from within) or that they genuinely come from outside and disrupt things (Luxemburg’s ‘heretical’ argument).

  2. Yes. But is the divide between capitalistic and non-capitalistic societies, or between specialized/hierarchical and non-specialized/hierarchical societies? The differentiations are already there in Herodotus, aren’t they (and capitalism isn’t, unless we stretch definitions… to specialized/hierarchical societies, but not *capital*-based ones, the latter of which I reckon is an essential ingredient in ‘capitalism’)? So, for example, when H is assessing the cultic infrastructure and ideas of Egypt, he just states that they’re more ‘religious’ than Greeks. Not more politico-religious, just religious.

    The base-superstructure idea even at its most nuanced (say, in Althusser) still sounds like adding epicycles to a misguided attempt to explain how stuff works. The distinction of ideas and extension in a thoroughgoing materialism always seemed daft to me. Surely there’s one psychological-material thing, and this the the base from which we must begin to differentiate?

    I’m quite interested in this question.

    1. See my comment above, except to add: what did H mean by ‘religious’. The Greeks had no concepts like we have of ‘the economy’ or ‘the environment’ (nor did they have syphilis), so I am curious what these strange creatures whom we claim as our intellectual heirs though when they used a term like ‘religion’. Actually, what word did H use? Theoteros?

    2. i have always been a little taken by Althusser and have this weird trans-generational oedipal relationship to him: I always try to think ideology beyond Althusser and end up haunted by Althusser after a journey through Foucault, Bourdieu and others.

      i think the attempt to supplement Althusser with Lacanian psychoanalysis has some promise, being at once able to argue for the unity of material/pscyhological while preserving an excess in both.

      speaking of which, isn’t it interesting how the Greeks fetishised the life of the Egyptians, the Romans fetishised the life of Greeks, the classical tradition fetishises both the Romans and the Greeks (and Zizek claims the modern West fetishises Tibet). There also seems to be a process of reification of categories like “religion” or “education” in all this.

  3. When H. described the Egyptians as more “religious” than any other people, he used the word theosebēs. He describes cult and belief following this. (Presumably this Greek translation of Egyptian “religion” does not merely mistranslate; although this is resolved, contingently, according to a historical critical method involving some degree of confidence or another, as is ‘translation’ into English, which then must be Egytian-in-Greek-in-English, all imperfectly known; but this is an inevitable limitation of the rules of the game. I don’t think it’s fatal to postulates about “religion”.)

    Must the genealogy of an idea limit that idea? is this not a genetic fallacy? Sure, the genealogy wholly determines it (that is a ‘limit’ in some sense, but the limit of the possible, not the actual); for the avoidance of doubt, I am not saying there is any individual or agency, which are both imaginary things. But there is a space in the material universe where ideas play amongst themselves, and the ladder which generates them can sometimes be kicked away (that is, the space in brains). This is where abstract thought comes from, whether from religion and society (Durkheim’s Elements) or from embodied experience (Lakoff and co.). The contigent (religion, sensuality) gives birth to the necessary (logic). The attempt to remedy the whimsical preference for external materiality over internal materiality (i.e. wrongly distinguished as matter and thought) by the epicycles of ‘semi-autonomy’ or, alternatively, the Birmingham ‘solution’ do not resolve his initial error. From this perspective, there can be no ‘outside’ of the system, as nothing is ever outside the system (nothing ever ‘erupts’ from nowhere; Benjamin’s and Badiou’s mystical bullshit). But there can be a change of system derived from within the system, because reality (external and internal reality) is always constructed with elements that resist systematization and bubble up from time to time (due to material conditions or new ideas; both material) and change the system.

    And now I’ve said that, it doesn’t seem too inconsistent with Marx & Engels’ original idea of dialectics. I think. Huh?

  4. No syphilis, huh? It reminds me of the NRSV translation of the demon-possessed boy of the gospels as having “epilepsy”. That’s a very good diagnosis of the symptoms described by the ancent Greek writers, and a terrible translation (into Aramaic-in-Greek-in-English).

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