Religion is a Repeating Chapter in the History of Politics

Jesus and the rich young man by Heinrich Hofmann, 1889

In 1949 the German philosopher Karl Jaspers coined the term ‘the axial age’ in his book, ‘The Origin and Goal of History.’ He defined the Axial Age as the pivotal period in human moral and spiritual development that has conferred upon the world the political, cultural and philosophical shape it has today. It occurred, according to Jaspers, between 2 and 3 thousand years ago in various places around the world. This pivot point in history comes after the emergence of the State and civilization in these areas, which current anthropological and archaeological thinking sets at about 5 to 6 thousand years ago.

What Jaspers and other historians had noticed in studies of ancient history was that over a relatively short span of time all the great founding philosophies or systems of morality that we still refer to today – such as Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Platonism, the Abrahamic religions – appeared in parallel, with no obvious connection, in different civilizations.

Jaspers looked for reasons for this ancient ‘enlightenment’ in the political situations of the various civilizations he analysed and suggested the opportunity for new thinking was provided in each area by the destabilization of the previous, originary, monolithic, State and the formation of smaller, competing States that were in a process of navigating a new course for themselves and in relation to adjacent territories. Several of the founding philosophers, for example, are known to have wandered around their region, disseminating their ideas in the cities and districts of different States.

Michel Gauchet, in ‘The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion’ (1985), takes up Jaspers’ notion and develops it. He finds that human history has undergone three pivotal revolutions. The first is the emergence of the State – the event that brought humans out of the longue (et heureuse) durée of pre-civilized existence – while the second is the shift in religious thought from immanence to transcendence: the Axial Age. The third, according to Gauchet, is the expansion of speculative thought brought about by the imperatives of Western Christianity (The Enlightenment). These three revolutions followed one another chronologically, but Gauchet insists: “The most important of these upheavals is undoubtedly the first one, the birth of the State. This event severs history in two and brings human societies into an entirely new age.”

For these revolutions after the emergence of the State, both Jaspers and Gauchet identify the motors of change as philosophical rather than material, although both would, of course, maintain that these changes in thinking were ‘prompted’ by situational factors. But still, Jaspers and Gauchet give us a useful way into thinking about pivotal points in ‘human history’ and we can go further. In fact, we can also go simpler.

In my CounterPunch article “The Wonders of Modern Life Briefly Explained” I identify two pivotal points. The first being the classic one: the emergence of the State. The second being the expansion of the strategy of acquiring ‘relative surplus value’ – capitalism – that led to the Industrial Revolution. Neither of these events were ‘philosophical’ revolutions. The philosophies that are associated with them came from them. So, morality, religion, and millenarianism (the ‘transcendent’ philosophies) emerged with the birth of the State and civilization. And ‘the Enlightenment’ and the march of ‘reason’ and ‘rationality’- speculative thought – emerged from the new economic and social circumstances created by capitalism.

In the article linked to above I do not explore how States were created, I do this in the piece “Re-Contextualizing Fascism” in which I use the image of chickpea bushes to make my argument. It may seem odd that I condense the emergence of the State into a short paragraph involving chickpea bushes within an article about fascism and anti-fascism, but that’s all part of the rock-and-roll of trying to cram novel ideas into less than two thousand words.

My argument in that article is that States are neither good nor bad – despite them often doing monstrous things and being represented by monsters – but emerged as a managerial solution to the dilemma of a large population. This is how I think the first State and civilization emerged – picture the scene, from long, long ago, two people are sat chatting in the shade of a rockface in the early morning:

“Yeah, Bob and his gang reckon they can sort out all the problems as long as everyone does what he says and gives him a tribute by sending daughters and sons to work for him, and building him a really good place to sleep in. The whole place will be a lot easier to live in, less chaos, but we’ll have to stay where we are and work harder to make sure he gets enough recompense for his trouble. We don’t want him to put his thugs on us, but it will be good if he sorts out those lazy thieving bastards who live up by the chickpea bushes…”

You will need to go back to the original article for a fuller exposition, but my argument here does not rely on you accepting or not my proposition for the origin of the State, so let’s proceed.

Back to religion. Did Gauchet get it right when he described the Axial Age as the change in religious thought from immanence to transcendence? Yes and no.

If we define religion only as having something to do with some kind of view that the truth of things as they are is underpinned by some kind of supernatural force or set of forces… then yes. Prior to the emergence of the State – and this is also recorded by anthropologists in the present day for Indigenous peoples who live with the land and not under the full command of a State – peoples viewed supernatural presences as immanent. This means they saw supernatural forces within all material things – they viewed the spiritual world as immanent. (Spinoza in 1665, by-the-way, returned ‘God’ to an immanent state, he was lucky not to be hanged for it, and his ‘Ethics’ formed one of the first texts of radical democracy, or communism, another transcendent philosophy.) Transcendent religions – for example, Christianity – took the supernatural out of all material things and made it stand above all things where it could control the universe. Once the idea of supernatural forces had been made transcendental (above the world) rather than in it (immanent) then it became possible to create monotheistic religion and everyone began to see God as a big guy somewhere up there in the sky. So, my contention here is that religion can only be transcendent – this is where I think Gauchet does not get it right.

How does paganism fit here? Paganism – as practiced by the Vikings and Ancient Romans, for example – is also a product of transcendent thinking because it has supernatural human figures that lord it over the world. Paganism and religion are products of the State – neither exist where exploitation and hierarchy are absent. Transcendent thinking is forever tied to social formations in which exploitation and hierarchy dominate.

John Gray begins his book, Black Mass (2007), with the sentence: “Politics is a chapter in the history of religion.” I think that this is a reversal of reality and history, religion is in fact the child of politics. What I perceive as Gray’s error comes, I think, from his psychological definition of religion. He writes:

“The most necessary task of the present time is to accept the irreducible reality of religion. In the Enlightenment philosophies that shaped the last two centuries, religion was a secondary or derivative aspect of human life that will disappear, or cease to be important, when its causes are removed. Once poverty is eradicated and education universal, social inequality has been overcome and political repression is a thing of the past, religion will have no more importance than a personal hobby. Underlying this article of Enlightenment faith is a denial of the fact that the need for religion is generically human. It is true that religions are hugely diverse and serve many social functions – most obviously, as welfare institutions. At times they have also served the needs of power. But beyond these socio-political purposes, religions express human needs that no change in society can remove – for example the need to accept what cannot be remedied and find meaning in the chances of life.”

There are two immediate problems with this passage. Firstly, is it true to state: “At times [religions] have also served the needs of power”? I am not sure about the words ‘at times.’ I would think that religions are either always at the service of power or are trying to build their own power. If they are small and/or ‘unsuccessful’ they operate like cults, with all the abuse that such social formations encourage. And even when they are ‘only’ operating as “welfare institutions” they are setting themselves out in an economic situation, with all the political leverage that comes with such a strategy, or they are pushing their particular religious brand. Either way, they are never separate from power.

Secondly, Gray is conflating religion with the natural impulse within people to embroider a vain narrative onto their life events, or to believe in luck, or to simply see patterns and make meaning. But worse than this, by making religion some kind of “irreducible” trait of human beings Gray is doing a massive, and possibly dangerous disservice to the perspectives of Indigenous peoples and those peoples who live beyond the clutches of the State – those who, as Eduardo Viveiros De Castro describes, see a multiplicity of ‘human’ subject positions in all the animate and inanimate beings that have, naturally, a different perspective on their world. (Viveiros De Castro has explored the notion of ‘perspectivism’ – not ‘animism’ – in Amerindian culture and, to explain it really simply I could use this question: do you think your dog views the world as ‘a dog,’ or does she view the world as the human?)

But it is Gray’s insistence that politics is a chapter in the history of religion that is my main concern here. It is most certainly true, as he shows in his book, that political utopianism, or communism, appears to resemble something like early Christianity and in making this connection we can easily fall into the trap of thinking that radical politics is the spawn of a religious impulse. The similarities between most religions – Judaism forms a kind of exception because it is not a recruiting religion – and radical politics become more obvious the more one considers them. For example, radical political groups are ever attempting to raise the consciousness of others and recruit them to their cause… just like Christianity did from the beginning… and so it would seem that the strategy for a political movement is descended directly from a recruiting religion like Christianity. But, in fact, it is the reverse.

Jesus Christ was an expression of political discontent within a Roman occupation. Christianity was a response to the objectionable aspects of a – foreign – State power. In fact, all religions are a response to living in a State – they begin as controlling ideologies, at the beginning of States, or as oppositional political movements, after States have been established.

It is no coincidence that the story of the Garden of Eden, for example, is about the loss of ‘innocence’ – Adam and Eve were the peoples that lived prior to their tragic immersion in a State. When States first appeared, as the archaeological evidence shows, people became hungrier, they were exploited, they were subject to hierarchy and terror. No wonder they looked back to a receding golden age. The story of the Garden of Eden was developed to warn people that they were in new, inescapable territory, it was their fault, and that if they didn’t follow a sound moral code then everything would get far worse. A transcendental rather than immanent supernatural force – God – was now presiding over the house, and he wasn’t often pleased. But radicals argued that God didn’t like these conditions and wanted to sweep away all the bad people so that the good people, the true believers, could live in peace again – and they began a political movement that appealed not to ‘true democracy’ – as we might today – but to the ‘true God.’

The utopian or millenarian radicals believed, like Jesus did, that heaven was definitely going to be (re-)established on Earth at some appointed time, and that if people wanted to get there then they should sign up and break with their old traditions and old family life asap. As Yuri Slezkine has shown in great detail in ‘The House of Government,’ the Bolsheviks, as well as the anarchists and left communists, were millenarians too.

Life in an exploitative and hierarchical society naturally generates opposition, which is often revolutionary and millenarian – and both are the same thing. Life in civilization also generates thinkers – philosophers – who try to work out how best to endure in such conditions. But if the political movement designed to revolutionize the State, or escape it completely, becomes successful then not only is a new State created, but also a new religion.

The first religions were indeed transcendent – they made the presumed supernatural force external to material life – but they weren’t millenarian, and they were developed in order to control populations that had to exploited. The religions that followed, such as Christianity, were political objections to the State that relied on reference to God for authority. If they became successful they did not do away with the State, they did not bring heaven to Earth, and they did not depose transcendence: they became part of the exploitative system. Communism is the most recent millenarian objection to the State. In our secular age ‘true or radical democracy’ can replace God as the focus of appeal. Where communism became successful, no matter how much one may think that it was a travesty of what ‘communism’ means, the new transcendent religion of Marxist-Leninism became established.

Politics – the management of people who accept or oppose the machinations of a State – comes before religion. We should be careful how we tread.

Peter Harrison wrote ‘The Freedom of Things: An Ethnology of Control,’ and co-authored ‘Nihilist Communism: A Critique of Optimism in the Far Left.’ For work Harrison drives a bus.  Email: