Religion, Politics and War


I wish to contradict the idea, inherent in much ‘universal’ history of the Toynbee school, that civilisations rest on religions. This is an idea picked up by Samuel P. Huntington more recently, but the opposite is clearly the case. The correct order of appearance must surely be society, culture, then politics and religion roughly together.

Politics and religion are not mutually exclusive, but they are to some degree in competition. They both represent a tertiary stage in the way a society deals with its disputes, its increasing complexity and its intellectual development. First comes a general, non-specific tendency to come together in groups larger than families; then comes the development of common objectives and forms in which to express them, notably language, property rules/laws and social hierarchy. Then, once wider social connections exist, and forms in which to discuss common purposes and interests become available, the question of how to achieve collective objectives can begin to have real meaning, and can be discussed. Disputes, the downside to social living, can also be resolved to agreed standards by agreed rules.

Neither politics nor religion could exist prior to the groups in which these activities were first practised. Nor could complex languages in which to discuss them. Even the most literal fundamentalists have to accept that God must have spoken in a language intelligible to His hearers, even if He Himself could not write. The first disputes about how we should live, whom we should fight and what exactly God is telling us, or what He wants, are questions that can only arise subsequently when humans have already decided to live in larger groups.

Nobody knows how society began, and it does not greatly matter, unless you have a point to make about some specific element of modern living, and are concerned to insist that it has or has not been correctly passed down. Hence the sometimes bitter disputes about the origin of money/credit so enthusiastically pursued by the Austrian school of economists, who feel a pressing need to show that a free market economy is somehow ancient and by extension therefore ‘natural’. We have very little evidence to resolve this issue; archaeology is not very helpful about soft cultural practices, and the texts do not particularly support the Austrian position.

In general it behoves everyone to exercise forbearance in drawing any firm conclusions about ancient history. And, frankly, it is not important to make any at all, if the real purpose is to make points about modern living. Modern points about modern society should be the currency we all deal in. I don’t think anyone really thinks that human sacrifice and living in caves have any role as authoritative models for modern life.

We ought, perhaps, to rest content with very general questions along the lines of: why did society begin at all? If we accept that ancient people were much like ourselves, then the resulting discussions can more honestly be viewed as an extension of modern politics, and we can stop inventing a special category of ancient politics. The amount of mystification and dogmatism involved might then diminish, to the general benefit of the subject.

Meanwhile we can all surely accept that there are definite advantages to living together in larger groups. Enhanced defence and the division of labour are two important ones. Another is that the arrival of more complex and more varied interactions has the beneficial effect of creating higher culture. This in turn stimulates an awareness of different levels and types of sharing and shared activities – the beginnings of a distinction between public and private spheres.

But culture can only develop after the decision to live together has been made, at something like the same time as common purposes are being formed, and common attitudes are beginning to develop. After the invention of forms of communication with the living (speech) and those that are to follow (writing), comes the detailed arrangement of society and the ability to adjust its general purpose. This is politics. In the wider sense, it is also religion.

Shared purposes, shared strictures, shared meanings; these three run all through our religion and our politics. The difference is that in politics we place ourselves at the centre of the system, choosing to ignore or discount outer influences and powers. We derive our own authority over ourselves from within our own union. This is a relatively transparent process and aligns broadly with the naked power of individuals. There is nothing essentially moralistic about it. Where religion differs is that it extracts authority from somewhere else. An outer, higher source of authority. This promotes the notion of legitimacy over that of mere acceptance.

Politics does not have to have an ethical level; it works at the level of practicalities. Neither does any primitive religion that is primarily concerned with propitiating spirits that can do us harm. But societies ask themselves many questions, and religion provides fuller answers. Politics asks what shall we do, and who will do it? Religion asks deeper questions about such decisions, questions cast in terms of should and ought.

Religion is a rebalancing of power within society based on the denial that the strongest should always win, or rule, or have the most food. It is counterintuitive in that it says that society’s immediate purposes are not the only purposes. It takes a wider view. It rebalances natural advantages. It places leaders under a special obligation to consider themselves less high than the highest authority imaginable. Old Testament prophets were remarkably clear about how selfishness works against the common interests of all, which God was concerned to guard.

Religion steps into politics because ethical judgement eventually steps into the realms of the exercise of power. Ethics can even deny that something natural is right. If nature itself is challenged, then ethical thinking places itself above the art of the possible and the primacy of the natural. Politics without ethics is crude struggle. Ethics without power to enforce the judgements it makes falls into hollow speechmaking.

Early societies were probably based on larger groupings of ready-made units – extended families. Families contain their own hierarchies, particularly of young and old. The distribution of physical strength and wisdom is to some extent immovable in the short term though it does evolve over time. Problems occur when this primal diversity is subsumed in wider groupings. Suddenly there are many wise men and many active leaders. The reorganising of the wider group into a group with its own autonomous promotion systems and its own set of wider loyalties was the next problem, and it is exactly the problem we still face in our daily political lives today. Who is and is not a ‘natural’ member of the family, who can come in, whose opinions carry most weight and who should be rewarded with authority for their personal merits – all these questions are absolutely the stuff of every political wrangle in the world today.

The metaphor of the family is such a hackneyed device that we are almost blind to it. Great leaders are still father or mother of the nation, the nation is still a family (especially on the right wing) and the family is still the preferred unit of construction (on the right). It was adopted by religion very thoroughly. God is our lord and father.

But one thing stands out. The first politics had to come before the first religion. Driving someone out of your hunting grounds is a political act. Religion only intrudes when you drive people out of your sacred hunting grounds. In effect, religion only begins when someone dares to stand up and say in some form: “God wants…”. This of course implies that we humans actually know what God wants, which is a big leap, and automatically carries with it the suspicion that in this case God is a thinly disguised “I/we”. This suspicion carries down to today where individuals and classes can still find individuals who will readily agree that what they want exactly coincides with what God wants.

The reason for the overlap, and confusion, between politics and religion is that they both sit on the same step of society’s evolution, and they fill complementary or parallel functions. Politics can exist without religion, being concerned with physical power, whereas every religion brings its own politics with it. The balancing of interests both of individuals and collective entities does not require the mediation of God, nor does it require sticking to His rules, as expressed in scripture. However religion always has the biggest ideas because religion is connected to the universe in a way that politics is only ever connected to a society.

It was the ideologies developed in modernity that eventually bridged this gap, but they always fall a little shorter than religions in their reach backwards in time, and outwards in stellar mileage.

Politics and religion thus sit next to each other on an early level of human association, as alternative but interconnected ways of laying out rules for society.

Culture comes first, and defines the kind of politics that any society can have. It is very hard to conduct politics under certain kinds of dominant culture. For instance, if the protection of the extended family, tribe or clan is paramount then conceptions of public interest will suffer. If revenge is the primary motivation in politics, then public-private distinctions will dissolve and warlordism will be the result. Pashtun culture is very clear about families, lineage, clans and hospitality, but very vague about any kind of wider association.

Politics can be set out along a variety of spectra, for instance from left to right, and religion can be similarly set out on a spectrum of loving God across to fearing God. These two spectra are related, but not very closely. The non-atheist left tends to identify humans closely with God, while the right tends to emphasise the difference between humanity and the divine. This, however, is a very western description. Hindus see all things as one, which is a more left-wing attitude, whereas certain types of Muslim (like Calvinists) see God as a fearsome and distant figure, with little in common with his creation – a worship of authority and hierarchy that is distinctly right wing.

These two conceptions, of a God who is distant yet also at hand, can live side by side fairly comfortably in the minds of most religious people, and in this sense religion is usually bigger than politics. Religion can always be placed round or over politics, or prior to it, because it has roots in the divine, which must precede humanity in time and outrank it in importance. Politics usually struggles to hold two conceptions at once, the idea that men can be equal and yet in hierarchy is a problem as yet unresolved, whereas the idea that God can both love and admonish his creations is quite natural.

Politics is a process of continuous social negotiation, usually carried on through representatives in larger societies. Part of this project can easily get sidetracked into placing excessive importance on exactly who among us those representatives will be. This can take up an enormous amount of time, and can even hijack the whole business: why this person over that person? But the underlying theme in politics is not the detailed cast of its players; it is the overall social purpose.

Politics has to be a negotiation, otherwise it is dictatorship. It has to be conducted within social groups, otherwise it is diplomacy. Or it is war. And it has to be continuous because life does not stop, nor do people’s needs come in fits and starts. They continue and evolve, and as a result the realm of politics has never-ending problems and challenges. People constantly fail, retire or die. An unending stream of natural disasters and external problems besets every society ever known. Politics is the area in which these problems are confronted.

Opinions of course vary, and so do interests, and properly conducted politics, in line with its host culture, will take account of all the changing factors within it. When it does not, it creates tensions.

Politics will not go away; attempts to make it vanish will be mistrusted as tyrannous. Dictators necessarily have to embark on such abolition projects, but they all end in failure, because death and developments always brush aside the over-mighty individual. Any such individual only ever draws strength collectively from many others, and such coalitions do not last. Politics changes its tone and its details, but it is as eternal as religion. It is, however, much less elegant.

So, we have a clear succession of events: the creation of society, then culture, then the arrival of the squabbling siblings – religion and politics, who jealously occupy similar places in the scheme of increasing social sophistication.

The initial two levels within this scheme represent cooperative actions, but at the third level we reach conflict and even war. It is hard to have serious conflict at the earlier stages, because there is no way to have a war without social organisation. At the first level, when society is still forming, there can be no war in a meaningful sense. All the words for individual conflict exist, but a one-man war is a metaphor or a poetic flourish. Society cannot be made by war. Nor can culture.

At the second level, culture is something that can be a means towards conflict – a way of organising or processing it, but not something that can, in any meaningful sense, be fought over. Culture is a binding, not a dividing force, and it affects the way societies go to war much more directly that what they go to war for. Wars are about dominion more than competitive cultural practices. Victory in war does not mean that the winners impose their culture on the losers. Sometimes the reverse is true, as with the successive invaders of China. Wars have never been about wedding rituals or the shape of vases. And more sophisticated cultures do not always win over more primitive. The Mongols had only a fraction of the culture of any of the settled societies they overran. No culture that had great poetry was assured, on that count alone, of victory on the battlefield. The Greeks had better drama, poetry, sculpture and philosophy than the Romans. The Romans still won.

Fighting comes at this third level of development, and both politics and religion are implicated here. War represents a failure of politics. Failure of religion does not lead to war, but to the reformation, replacement or recreation of religion itself. However, war is such a drastic and all-consuming event that religion cannot be left out. Win or lose, some religious viewpoint has to be supplied.

It has always been futile to fight over religion, and this has almost never actually happened. Societies or states do not take theological offence very easily, but they are highly perceptive of material interests of all sorts. Religions cannot truly win wars either. Conquered people do not necessarily change their faith; they only have to do so superficially. In successful wars leading to conquest, it is political organisation that changes. Every time. Mere battlefield victories do not change culture, political structure or economic balances by themselves.

No matter what the alleged causes, the outcome of decisive war is political change. It is never religious change unsupported by political change. But political changes that are unacceptable in religious terms can and do happen.

 Posted by at 12:35 pm

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