Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Opiate of the Masses

Is religion political? It can undeniably be used for political ends, but was religion established to be political? Religion is highly useful for organizing society. It provides a moral consensus, a batch of in-group characteristics, very often origin myths, and can be used as an unquestioned and unquestionable motivational tool. I have now met three people who believe religion was created solely to stop people from thinking and therefore accept the political status quo.

We can't use the current formulations of old religions as an argument in favor of religion as a political institution. Given the obvious advantages of exploiting religious belief, any religion is likely to become co-opted into the political system. Thus we have to look back to when religions were new to determine their role.

It is my understanding that very few new religions were adopted peacefully. Usually, the established order attempts to crush the new religion. The only religions who weren't faced with such pressure were those whose origins are lost in the mists of time, and they may have. Islam and Christianity were. Christianity, in fact, was only accepted into one society (Ireland) without violence. Monotheistic sun-worship caused the collapse of the Incan empire. Socrates was executed for his actions. We can thus be certain that religion is not normally a political institution established by the ruling elite.

This does not, however, preclude the possibility that religion is a revolutionary institution. It is a means by which a disenfranchised elites overthrows the current regime and establishes themselves. A revolutionary institution is a very different animal from the established religions used to control society. Thus a successful political religion is one that manages to overthrow an established order and then tame its revolutionary fervor.

How do non-religious revolutions tame the revolution? They tend to do it through purges. There are overt purges, of which Stalin was the master, and covert purges, such as Yushchenko's ousting of his Cabinet in Ukraine's Orange Revolution, but there are also redirected purges. Leroy Thompson, in his book Ragged War: The Story of Unconventional and Counter-Insurgency Warfare, argues that the Tet offensive was essentially a North Vietnamese purge of the Vietcong cadres. The insurgents who might have been a threat to a repressive North Vietnamese regime were liquidated in a wholesale assault on "the enemy." The best target of a redirected purge for a political religion would be heretics. One would thus expect that a political religious institution would begin liquidating its most ardent supporters and its non-conformists by placing them at each others' throats, which is born out by history.

This, however, takes place too late in the cycle. It could be that an up-and-coming religion is exploited by the disenfranchized elite as a means of regaining status. With the notable exception of Islam, the founders of new religions, and their immediate followers, tend to eschew political action. It is only later in their development, when the religion has gained a larger following, and thus a substantial political influence, that it begins to take political stands. Though this could be a consequence of new possibilities opening up to religious leaders, I believe that this shift is externally motivated, by a disenfranchized elite, because such elites tend to adopt whatever means are available. Therefore, religion is not born as the opiate of the masses. It is born of fervor, redirected into revolution, repressed into submission, and reintroduced as the opiate.


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