Thursday, November 19, 2009

What is "Counterreligion"?

For these religions, and for these religions alone,
the truth to be proclaimed comes with an enemy to be fought.
[Jan Assmann, The Price of Monotheism]

All religions do not come into this world looking for a fight. But some do. Unfortunately, those that do have a certain practical advantage. To understand this advantage, think of religions that are not inclined to violence as being like people who are not inclined to violence, and think of religions that are inclined to violence like people with that inclination. When they come into contact with those who are not inclined to violence, those who are inclined to violence have a tendency to come out on top. And once on top they have another tendency, as described so well by J. William Fulbright:
Power tends to confuse itself with virtue and a great nation is particularly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God's favor, conferring upon it a special responsibility for other nations – to make them richer and happier and wiser, to remake them, that is, in its own shining image. Power confuses itself with virtue and tends also to take itself for omnipotence. Once imbued with the idea of a mission, a great nation easily assumes that it has the means as well as the duty to do God's work.
[J. William Fulbright, in a speech delivered at Johns Hopkins University in 1966]
A very important thing to be aware of, though, is that religion itself is not inherently violent and intolerant. In fact, for most of human history there were no religions that viewed other religions as enemies. One can go even further and posit that intolerance is inimical to religion itself, properly speaking, and that those "religions" that are systemically intolerant, that is, those for whom "the truth to be proclaimed comes with an enemy to fight" are not religions at all, but are rather more accurately described as counterreligions.

As Egyptologist Jan Assmann has discussed in depth and at some length in his books Moses the Egyptian and The Price of Monotheism a counterreligion cannot exist without enemies. This is one reason why counterreligions are also called secondary religions. Primary religions require no enemies, so they are the only kind of religion that can arise spontaneously, on their own, because only a primary religion can define itself in its own terms, without recourse to condemnation of other religions. Even the very concept of "other" religions is almost impossible for adherents of primary religions to comprehend, for they tend to view all religions as simply varying manifestations of the same basic phenomenon (a point of view which, in turn, is nearly incomprehensible to the vast majority of adherents of primary religions).

Originally, that is, before the advent of counterreligions, primary religion was a natural, organic part not only of all human societies, but of the life of the family and also the life of the individual as well. Wherever it flourishes, primary religion is intimately interwoven into every aspect of life, a characteristic of primary religion that is well understood by social anthropologists and religious history scholars -- but only for so-called "primitive" cultures. Theo Sundermeier, from whom Assmann originally borrowed the primary vs. secondary nomenclature, well illustrates this point in his book The Individual and Community in Traditional African Religions. But, contrary to what Sundermeier and others claim, it is not just in "primitive" and/or "traditional" societies that we find primary religions in which every aspect of life has some kind of religious significance, from giving birth to waking up in the morning to crossing a stream, etc.

As already stated, there were originally only primary religions. But these primary religions were not limited to hunters and gatherers living in small isolated villages. The great civilizations of the so-called Axial Age (~800-200 BC) all had primary religions. This includes the Greco-Roman progenitors of modern "western" civilization. And before the Axial Age, the ancient civilizations of China, India, Sumer, Babylon, and Egypt all had primary religions. The peoples of these ancient civilizations were the inventors of writing, metallurgy, philosophy, engineering, architecture, mathematics, geography, astronomy, etc. They lived in cities, read books, went to plays, wrote letters and diaries, hummed popular music tunes, argued about politics, talked about the weather, traveled on holidays, threw parties, wooed lovers, cheated on partners, got rich, went broke, and in many other ways were very much like us.

But the people of ancient civilizations and of the Axial Age were very different from us in one crucial way: they knew nothing of religious intolerance. This is not naive ahistorical romanticism, and it does not amount to a claim that these people lived in egalitarian pacifist utopias. Their societies had both warfare and great inequality, for examples. But, well, so do we. But they did not fight wars or commit acts of terrorism because of religion, nor did they oppress people because of religion. That such a glaring, objective distinction, with respect to religious tolerance and intolerance, can be justified by well established historical fact is very hard for people to comprehend and accept, if all they have ever known is secondary religion:
Having lived for hundreds and thousands of years on the terrain of secondary religious experience and in the spiritual space created by the Mosaic distinction, we Jews, Christians and Muslims (to speak only of the monotheistic world) assume this distinction to be the natural, normal, and universal form of religion. We tend to identify it [the Mosaic distinction] unthinkingly with religion as such, and then project it onto all the alien and earlier cultures that knew nothing of the distinction between true and false religion.
[The Price of Monotheism, p. 8]

The concept of "counterreligion" is intended to draw out the potential for negation that inheres within secondary religions. These religions are also inherently "intolerant," although, again, this should not be taken as a reproach. Two hundred and fifty years ago, David Hume not only argued that polytheism is far older than monotheism, he also advanced the related hypothesis that polytheism is tolerant, whereas monotheism is intolerant. This is an age-old argument, which I had no intention of revisiting in my Moses book [Moses the Egyptian]. Secondary religion must be intolerant, that is, they must have a clear conception of what they feel to be incompatible with their truths if these truths are to exert the life-shaping authority, normativity, and binding force that they claim for themselves.

In each case, counterreligions have transformed, from the ground up, the historical realities amidst which they appeared. Their critical and transformative force is sustained by their negative energy, their power of negation and exclusion. How they deal with their structural intolerance is another matter. That is not my concern here, although I want to note in passing my belief that religions ought to work through the problem rather than attempting to deny that it even exists.
[The Price of Monotheism, p. 14]