The Worship Business


a dialogue between


Zoë Abrams & James Soderholm

JS: Freud argues that religious feelings and sentiments--and especially the need for an all- protective father--are the reasons why people seem to believe in supernatural beings and engage in religious practices. He thinks religion is the result of infantile helplessness. Is that all there is to the story of religion? Is Freud missing something? Was Marx also correct to diagnose religion as 'the opium of the people.' I am persuaded by these thinkers and they have helped me to overcome any need for religion at all. But I sometimes wonder if both Freud and Marx were being too reductive in their thinking. Were they both missing something important about spirituality? Or did they happily demolish religion and get us beyond our pathetic addiction to its comforting hallucinations?

ZA: Marx’s analysis of religion is extremely enlightening. The ‘opium’ metaphor reflects the manner in which religion numbs the suffering of the oppressed classes under an unequal economic system. By equating poverty with virtuousness and establishing the social order as divinely appointed, religion creates false consciousness which pushes individuals to accept their social position, by equating suffering with virtue, and action for social change with blasphemy. Marx saw the Church as an institution that supported and perpetuated the economic structure of a society, with religious changes occurring in response to economic ones, such as the Protestant Reformation arising as a response to movements away from feudalism, which would eventually create a capitalist economy.

However, I find the Marxist model a little simplistic, and would turn to Weber’s work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, for more answers. Weber claims that religion sowed the seeds of capitalism, with Calvinist values such as hard work and profit facilitating its development. Religion’s influence on the economy was also seen in India, with the caste system’s impact on societal relations shaping how people traded and worked together. Both Weber and Marx make strong arguments on religion’s relationship to the economy, yet come to opposite conclusions. However, I feel as if the link between the two entities is a little less binary than the two thinkers present it, and thus would favour a combination of both models, in which there is a mutually constructive relationship between cultural belief systems and the mode of production, both shaping each other rather than there being one determining factor.  

Freud’s explanation of religion’s function on a more personal level is very convincing, yet is reductive in that its analysis is mostly based around Abrahamic faiths. Polytheistic religions possess a range of deities, many of which have multiple functions and qualities other than offering Freud’s paternal protection. Often the characteristics possessed by these gods mirror socially constructed ideals, such as war or victory, or human characteristics that are deemed desirable, like beauty or wisdom. The Palaeolithic figurine, ‘The Venus of Willendorf’ is thought to be representative of a mother goddess, with fertility being an extremely desirable human characteristic during this early period, where miscarriage and infertility were common. ‘The Venus’ exemplifies humanity’s need to nurture and glorify the qualities we deem valuable, possibly indicating some of the motivations for religion today.

Nietzsche’s analysis of Dionysus and Apollo as the two major forces in both Greek culture and human nature illustrates just how often deities may closely reflect humanity. This may suggest that religious worship can be a form of self-fulfilment, as by worshipping the characteristics that we aspire to possess, we are able to reflect on our own human nature and cultivate a balance of these traits within ourselves. Even the Abrahamic God can be viewed as an expression of the most ideal, perfect qualities humans wish to possess. Religion is often used to explain why things happen, and the prevalence of this question throughout human thought reflects just how important knowing why is to us. By worshipping an omniscient figure who simultaneously knows why and is the reason why, we are not just finding an answer to all of life’s questions, but also glorifying the very quality of omniscience which we so desire to possess.

JS: A rich and lavish smorgasbord of insights and ideas. I scarcely know where first to apply the tongs. I think you are right to show the reductiveness of Freud’s theory, and also right to suggest the other ways that religion reflects human desires, fantasies and needs. But the fact remain that we are the source of all religious phenomena. I wonder if you know this short meditation by William Blake from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged and numerous senses could perceive. And particularly they studied the genius of each city and country, placing it under its mental deity. Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of and enslaved the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects: thus began Priesthood. Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales. And at length they pronounced that the Gods had ordered such things. Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.

The poet thus prefigures Marx, Freud, and Weber and their various ways of characterizing the systems of religious and the motives underlying them. I think one of the most liberating and intelligent things I’ve ever read is presented in the simple sentence: “Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales.” People would eventually nobly slaughter one another to advance those forms of worship. Indeed, we are now living in a time when killing in the name of one’s God is waiting for us on the streets of London as we decorously consume our chateaubriands near Borough Market. But what if people never did choose forms of worship from poetic tales? Why were the poetic tales not enough to satisfy us? What could be more satisfying than a poetic tale, or a piquant myth, or a deified river? How can we explain the often disastrous ‘choosing’ of worship based on a simple tale? I wonder how the world would be different had that transformation never happened.

ZA: Blake argues that religion originated from humans filling objects with meaning from the world around them, until the deities they had bestowed upon these objects were appropriated by a system of more organised religion, alienating these gods from their human origin. However, regarding your last question, it is interesting to see how even faiths that are more humanistic, such as Buddhism and Confucianism, still possess the status and function of a religion. In light of these cases, the history of religion is more effectively viewed through a structural functionalist lens, rather than by focusing on its origins. 

Confucius believed that the basis for a stable social order was found in the rituals and values of Zhou religion, but removed these aspects from their original context, and positioned them in a more atheistic, ethical frame. The function of this appropriation was to preserve tradition and order as the Zhou Dynasty collapsed, with Confucius seeing his philosophy as a tool to serve humanity rather than an objective truth, such as in monotheistic religions. Nonetheless, Confucianism serves many of the core purposes of religions in other societies – reinforcing a strict social hierarchy, traditions, and morals. Under Confucius’s ethical system, people must act according to their relationship to others (most importantly, relationships between fathers and sons – an interesting parallel to Christianity) just as those in a theistic society are constricted by their relationship with religious figureheads, and the deities themselves. 

However, it is interesting that Confucianism, with its strict rules, and lack of spirituality or willingness to answer fundamental philosophical questions, is rarely searched for when those living in East Asia find themselves in need of personal comfort. They more often seek solace in Buddhism (or Christianity, which is growing in popularity in the region), illustrating just how important the personal function of religion is, as well as its purpose in society. Religion’s ability not only to console individual struggles, but also to answer the larger, more terrifying questions of the universe, is perhaps what draws so many towards it. For the individual, one of the most enchanting aspects of religion is the role of personal ritual in providing a sense of individual peace and satisfaction, such as in prayer or the repetition of a mantra.

Nevertheless, the purpose of ritual differs when it comes to ones of a more social nature. We enact many forms of personal ritual on a day-to-day basis, but not all of these possess the same all consuming, miraculous power as engaging in group ritualistic experiences. Durkheim stated that religious ritual encourages social cohesion and solidarity, possessing a functional role within society as well as a personal one. On this premise, it is arguable that the ability of ritual to empower and encourage cooperation is not confined to religious spheres– if you have ever attended a birthday party, or been amongst a group of avid football supporters convening over pre-match drinks, this is obvious. But what is so appealing about religious worship that makes it so much more pervasive than non-theistic rituals? Perhaps, it is religion’s ability to exert an iron grip over society, in contrast to other subjects of ritual. Durkheim argued that group experiences of religious ritual helped to form a barrier between the common rabble and the sacred figure being worshipped, separating the figure from the powerless masses and thus giving it greater power over and within society. However, Durkheim claimed that this division was in fact illusory. To him, religion was society: the nameless, faceless force that we perceive to be a deity is actually the overwhelming power of ourselves as a social group. Perhaps Blake was right, therefore, to remind us of religion’s human origins, as it appears that these have had a considerable impact upon its function. 

JS: I think any religion that promises an afterlife—and they all do, not coincidentally—is going to be enormously appealing because mortality is such an awful prospect. Social cohesion and church picnics are merely a pleasant bonus in the here-and-now. But is not the big prize the certainty of an immortal life in some heaven or other, or in some reincarnated body, or in whatever other form that delivers us into a new and possibly deathless life? The moral or ethical codes established by a given religion or philosophy are a way of making this life rather less chaotic and Hobbesian until we reach that plateau where everyone is affable, has a nice glow, is playing the harp, and suddenly has perfect pitch. Religions are a sweet deal, in other words.  

It’s a shame, in some ways, that science and rationality have made religions so perfectly unbelievable. Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud all nailed the coffin shut on God. It’s difficult to calculate the loss and gain from such a thorough killing of God. Most people now rarely worship anything except what Shakespeare so intelligently called ‘the visible god’—that is, money. But at least money exists. But how far are we better off worshipping something so venal? Who can say? I imagine you can.

ZA: Money dominates societies, determining our social relationships, opportunities, desires, and even our lifespans. It appears to have overwhelming control over our existence, and thus its accumulation is the purpose of most people’s day-to-day activities. Why do thousands work alienating, underpaid jobs in the dimly lit caverns of an Amazon warehouse? Why did Joe Keller send out faulty airplane parts, despite the possible consequences? Why was Mrs Bennet so desperate for her daughters to marry? Money.

Despite its importance, I disagree with your premise that we now have turned our attention to the ‘worship’ of money. Does capital’s iron grip on our survival make its attention equivalent to the worship of God? Though the two share similarities, the world of finance is fundamentally different to that of religion. Shakespeare was right to say that money is the ‘visible god’ – corporeal, man-made, and lacking the fundamental qualities of a deity. Though money provides the means for a person to dominate the human realm, a god promises immortality of the soul in the afterlife. The former is a means to access power, and to acquire qualities that may even appear ‘god-like’, such as social influence and greater freedom to do as one wishes. Thus, money is a tool which one may use to achieve self-fulfilment on Earth, whereas God represents a more powerful metaphysical, epistemological and ethical role. Money is merely a useful tool for human exchange (never mind the huge social consequences of it), but God is where existence, morality, and the ultimate goal of life are derived from. Hence, our ‘worship’ of money cannot be equivalent to that of God. 

Nevertheless, it is fair to say that both money and God are alike in that neither of them are real. Both are part of our cultural imaginations, with money, like God, only being functional due to our faith in it. This has been seen most clearly in how even paper currency has become increasingly irrelevant in our society, with the use of credit cards meaning that money has been reduced to a few ones and zeroes on a computer. Yet it is far easier to have no faith in God than in money, despite religion’s enticing promise of an afterlife. Imagine trying to obtain the five loaves and two fish, when you have no belief in the monetary value assigned to them, or to the coins you are meant to buy them with. Thus, faith in money is necessary for survival, whereas in modern society, atheism is unlikely to make you perish of starvation. It is interesting that we have come to value money so much over religion, and this appears to speak to the differing roles played by God and money within society. Most civilisations have made use symbolic objects to facilitate exchange, and some have argued that organised religion is actually a result of the use of currency, rather than a completely separate entity. Early forms of currency were, like today, symbolic, and therefore people needed to have faith in their value to allow transactions to run smoothly. Therefore, to guarantee the value of these symbols, governments were formed, who needed a justification for their right to rule: religion. This suggests that money has ultimately played the more important role in our society, determining the function of both government, and organised religion’s theocratic role within it. But what happens when people begin to lose faith? We have seen the upturn of supposedly divinely appointed social structures throughout history, and rarely has this lead to money being devalued. Perhaps theocratic elements of government played a role in legitimising early currencies, but this has often been irrelevant in the course of more recent historical events. I am not certain that I fully agree with the theory, as (just as you have mentioned) there are more appeals to religion than its functional role.

We have spoken of the way in which religion may have been the servant of money, but more intriguing is the conflict between the two. Especially for those without access to it, capital is seen as cold, callous, and unobtainable, in contrast to the omnibenevolent God who loves all his (puny, needy and grovelling) children. The ultimate goal of worshipping the Christian deity is of course eternal life, something that is obtainable to all no matter what their financial restrictions are. In fact, God favours those without money, with the Bible touting values such as humility, modesty, and pity, the slave morality promoted in resentment against the master morality (cunning, nobility, self worth) of Roman oppressors. The accumulation of wealth usually associated with the master is made equivalent to greed, selfishness, and impiety-- money is the ultimate distraction from God. The fight for attention between the two has impacted upon society ever since the rise of organised religion, sometimes even existing within religious institutions. From indulgences to corrupt evangelists such as Benny Hinn, it is obvious that the social construct of money still has agency within the supposedly absolute world of religion. Is it the nature of organised religion to become corrupted with ungodly, self-interested human influence? Though it offers metaphysical comfort, to what extent are we merely manipulated into belief in a system that mostly benefits the powerful?

JS: The obscenely-wealthy Catholic Church is the best example, perhaps, of what you are describing. Imagine John or Jesus or Paul walking into St. Peter’s in Rome. What would be their reactions? Would they have ‘Protestant’ or ‘Baptist’ reactions? Would they be thrilled by the ornate magnificence of the Basilica (or Cathedral) or would they not be able to stop throwing up? But are other world/ly religions as guilty (and gilty) as the Catholics when it comes to ostentation and a fascination with power? How about Judaism, or Islam, or Buddhism? Is Christianity particularly good at welding the invisible God and the visible god together? If so, why? Certainly Weber thought so and believed that Protestants were particularly adept at making a religious work ethic go hand-in-glove with the spirit of capitalism. But is that what Martin Luther had in mind when he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg? The mountebanks and tele-evangelists on TV are merely the worst of a bad lot but one wonders if they are the epitome rather than a parody of Christianity. Who is in a position to say? 

ZA: I feel that in many cases, it is difficult to judge how guilty any one faith is in its thirst for authority. When religions become the dominating force in a society, they are often reduced to mere vessels through which power is exerted over the masses. It is not a coincidence that many religions are centred on an omnipotent, monotheistic deity, surrounded by angelic messenger figures. This closely mirrors the hierarchy of Pope and Bishops, of Caliph and Imams, legitimising the structured power of religious institutions. Though the episcopal structure is partly based upon scripture, it fulfils another role, as a means to divide, conquer, and control, extremely effectively. The development of Church hierarchy since the origins of Christianity illustrates the coercive role that the clergy play(ed) in society. By not allowing women to be ordained, the Church Fathers ensured that their pawns would always be well respected within society, and thus more effective figures of authority. Now, as the fight against the patriarchy surges forward, the Anglican Church have ordained many women, and even encouraged them to take on religious roles. This helps to preserve the Church’s status, as female led congregations are often more populous than those led by men. 

Though historically, the Catholic Church was notoriously corrupt, and abused by many in order to gain power, the religion is perhaps best thought of as a political movement that was legitimised by faith, rather than a religion exploited by the ambitious. By the time that the Middle Ages were in full swing, the Catholic Church had unquestionable authority over Western Europe, functioning almost as an imperial entity, far above the power the monarchs of small, warring kingdoms. It was the only universal establishment across the west of the continent, churches operating as a propaganda machine to maintain faith in such a sprawling institution. Of course, the spiritual role of the Catholic Church cannot be underestimated, but largely its function was that of a political entity. The way in which the rise of Protestantism plunged Europe into brutal international and civil conflict is a testament to this. The Thirty Years War, for example, broke out due to the squabble between Protestant and Catholic monarchs, wishing to exert political control over certain Germanic regions. The conflict broke out as a primarily religious affair, but soon progressed into war over which power would rule Europe, the religious aspect of the fight being fundamentally interlinked with its political side. 

Religious empire was not merely a European phenomenon. Despite the Catholic Church exercising considerable power over Western Europe, perhaps a clearer example of the intermingling of religion and power is seen in the Caliphate. True, it is notable that Islam was of a more political nature from its origins. Muhammad was a military leader as well as a prophet, and the role of the Caliph closely integrated religious and political authority. Nonetheless, the Caliphate functioned in a manner that was fairly similar to the Catholic Church, both being institutions that spread their divinely legitimated rule across the land, not only in the hopes of exercising authority over these conquered regions, but also to spread their religions. 

Interestingly, in the Crusades we see direct conflict between the two institutions, both sides believing that their cause was legitimised by God. Yet the plundering of the Eastern Mediterranean also had political motives – the first Crusade, to unite Europe in a common goal, the fourth to destroy the enemies of Catholicism, consolidating the religion’s power. Many historians have viewed the Crusades as proto-colonialist endeavours, while others, noting the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, have painted them in a more favourable light.

The idealised historical interpretations of the Caliphate in the Middle East has led to some groups, such as ISIS, to fight for the establishment of a modern day Caliphate, often through harsh, militaristic means.

It is important to examine why such an increase in violent religious sentiment has occurred. I feel that in part, Western imperialism has had a role in breeding such a problem. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, many areas of the Middle East that were not already under European influence, became British and French mandates. The borders created forced conflicting ethnic and religious groups into single countries, and when European empires went into decline, these fundamentally flawed nation states were forced to operate as independent entities. In more recent history, destruction caused by years of war, drought, and displacement of large civilian populations have greatly worsened the situations. 

More, significantly, we have a shocking history of ignoring and facilitating Islamic fundamentalism in the pursuit of our own interests. In the case of Saudi Arabia, where the West takes a blind eye to their religious conservatism, long list of human rights atrocities, and likely orchestration of 9/11, we forget our own ‘liberal values’ for the acquisition of oil. Similarly, Tony Blair proceeded to ignore warnings that the 2003 invasion of Iraq would only worsen terrorism, and went to war anyway. With both interior and exterior forces pushing the Middle East to crisis point, the phenomenon of Islamic fundamentalism can be seen as a ‘foxhole’ situation. Desperation causes people to turn to religion, and thus the idea of a militant, imperial religious institution may seem appealing. In an era of climate change, growing corporate plutocracy, and frosty foreign relations, why is religion falling apart at such a rapid pace in the West? Religious belief is not solely based on desperation, as we have discussed earlier, but why have these poor circumstances not prevented the decline of Christian faith?

JS: I think that’s an excellent question. My first thought is that the West has simply enjoyed too much rich, healthy scepticism and doubt to recline in the soft upholstery of religious dogma and piety. Add to that the achievement of Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud and it is no surprise that Christian faith had to decline in the last 150 years, no matter how unpropitious one’s circumstances. Having said that, in lesser-developed nations various forms of religious faith and zealotry are taking hold precisely because there is still a sturdy connection between desperation and faith.  

I think the West’s sometimes arrogant presence in the Middle East is regrettable unless you think that in 200 years more democracies and fewer theocracies will be flourishing there because Western powers more or less gracelessly planted them. Is this a case of kicking the Islamic hornet’s nest or would Islam have grown and flourished in any case because of demographics, birth rates, and its own expansionist ambitions? It is also difficult to discern how may religions are vessels for power or pure instantiations of authority and power. How can that be determined in any specific case? I am reminded of the old adage: hate the sin, not the sinner. But sometimes one cannot slip a piece of paper between them.  

ZA: I agree that there are many societal differences between the West and the Middle East, which have facilitated an increase in the Islamic faith. The growing size of the region’s population, due to improved medical standards and urbanisation, has naturally led to Islam becoming a more populous world religion. However, the increase in fundamentalist Islam is more of a political issue (in part, relating to Western actions in the Middle East) than a direct result of the faith’s growth. Hatred of the West created a dislike of secular, capitalist societies amongst certain groups. Thus, a move towards theocracy was deemed necessary in order to reclaim Islamic unity, strength, and identity. 

Nonetheless, it is unfair to say that Islam and democracy are entirely incompatible. Developments in the Middle East since 2010 have shown that, amongst some groups, desire for democracy and religious tolerance are significant forces. The Arab Spring indicated a swerve in public opinion towards democratic government, and were at first believed to signify the future decline of fundamentalism in the region. However, the sectarian movements, civil wars, and rise of ISIS occurring afterwards suggest that democracy, at least in the Western ‘liberal’ form, is far off. Revolutions rarely, if ever, achieve what they set out to. In multiple nations that modified their governments after the Arab Spring, apostasy is still punishable by death, and one authoritarian regime has merely been replaced by another. The case of Syria illustrates how such pro-democracy protests spiralled into civil war, owing to intergroup conflict, ruthless oppression, and presence of fundamentalist forces. While theocratic groups in the Middle East are obviously more zealous, people fighting for democracy are not staunch disclaimers of Islam either. In many cases, the atheism of democratic groups is in reaction to conservative, authoritarian Islamist movements, anger towards the conservative dimension of the religion leading to its rejection altogether. It is therefore arguable that it is not the nature of Islam which makes democracy so difficult to access, but the huge instability in the region.

The case of the Middle East highlights religion’s role as a political movement against perceived threats to society, legitimated by the religious faith of its followers, and the divine will of God. Thus we return to its value in facilitating social cohesion and unity, in the consensus of a common belief. In this dialogue we have also discussed religion’s human origins, and its personal, economic, and hierarchical function. Ultimately, it can thus be said that religion’s fundamental purpose is to organise the confusing and inexplicable existence of the human race. It has had an overwhelming role in coordinating our survival, whether this be by dictating our beliefs about ourselves and the universe, or providing well organised, productive societies. Yet as our civilisations have become more stable and secure, and our understanding of the world has developed, religion has become less necessary. Nonetheless, we can never doubt its role in shaping our current reality. Religion is not to be brushed off as blind, desperate belief, but should be recognised as a major cog in the machine of human existence.