Friday, July 10, 2015

Monotheism and White Supremacy

Part IV: Human, Cultural and Religious Evolution
Belief Systems, Monotheism and White Supremacy   

By Heather Gray

In the previous article I addressed issues surrounding the advent of agriculture. The primary theses are that with agriculture we witnessed the beginning of hierarchical societies and the desire by the elite and others to have a "surplus" of food readily available. The question was, as always, how to ensure the surplus? What tools are needed for that purpose? Religion was one of those critical devices.   

Scholar Jared Diamond notes that the roles of religion are the following - and which have ebbed and flowed over time: (1) explanation of the world around us which he notes was the original function; (2) diffuse anxiety; (3) provide comfort; (4) organization and obedience; (5) codes of behavior towards strangers; (6) justifying war; (7) badges of commitment  (Diamond - "The World Until Yesterday"). I will touch upon some but not all of these and primarily "organization and obedience".  

Changing our Belief Systems

The complexity of creation stories and other vast components of the world's spiritual elements in hunter-gatherer societies that tend to venture into all aspects of our lives and environment, had likely been too complex and time consuming for the humans living on the huge plains of Central Asia,  North Africa and elsewhere as the domestication of plants evolved. In fact, North Africans, followed by Europeans, due largely to the advent of agriculture, began to develop a more toned down and/or refined and simplified version of the spirit or religious world - as in ultimately with the monotheistic creation of Judaism, as the progenitor, followed by Christianity and Islam.  In many instances, what might have been profound about these faiths has, historically, often been twisted for the service of the elite.   
With Christians there was one God, one savior, and a heaven (along with prescribed ways to get there) which was a radically reduced, refined or less complex belief system then was the case with hunter-gatherer societies.  Further, the monotheistic religions radically changed our concepts of and relationship to nature. They essentially took the belief of the "divine" out of our understanding of the natural world. Regarding a substantive inclusion of nature in the faith, it is interesting to compare this with the Hindu faith that precedes Christianity by some 2,000 years:      
Western religious thought based upon Biblical traditions regards nature as something created by God. If nature is sacred, it is so as God's creation. This is the basis of the approach to ecology in western religious traditions. They ask us to protect nature as God's creation, but do not afford nature any sanctity of its own. However, they are generally suspicious of nature Gods and regard worshiping the Earth itself as a form of idolatry. That is why they have historically rejected nature based or pagan religions as unholy, including Hinduism.  

The Hindu view of nature is based upon the Vedas, Upanishads and Vedanta and their philosophical views, as well as Hindu devotional and ritualistic practices. According to Hindu thought, there is no separation between the Divine and the world of nature. They are the two aspects of the same reality. The cosmic reality is one like the ocean. Nature or the manifest world is like the waves on the surface of the sea. Brahman or the unmanifest Absolute is like the depths of the sea. But it is all water, all the same single ocean (Hindu View of Nature).     
Hindu texts and scriptures are full of references to the worship of the divine in nature. And they continue to be relevant today. Millions of Hindus recite Sanskrit mantras daily that revere their rivers, mountains, trees and animals. Many also follow, for religious reasons, a vegetarian diet and oppose the institutionalized killing of animals for human consumption. The Earth, depicted as a Goddess or "Devi", is worshipped in many Hindu rituals. (GLOBAL IDEAS)

As with agriculture, monotheism also radically altered the status of women in society and had males dominating in the belief system - a male God, male savior and prophets etc. which then effected the social relationships and attitudes toward women and more often maligned them or lowered their status considerably. Monotheistic religions are often referred to, appropriately, as patriarchal. Before males predominated in the now contemporary major religious faiths, there were both female and male goddesses and gods in most of our religions, in fact:
Prior to the exclusivism of the Monotheists, there were hundreds of gods and goddesses alive and worshipped in cultures throughout the world. There is evidence that the early Jews worshipped Asherah, a goddess, along with Yahweh, their male deity, and the Jewish mystical tradition acknowledges Shekinah as the feminine principle of life....
When gods are both male and female, there is some parity between men and women. Both have their proper roles, and both are Divine....
When a solo male God became the source of life and salvation, feminine characteristics got transferred to masculine. When God, and men, are responsible for fertility, nature, creation and destruction, the feminine gets shoved aside, destroyed, or buried in the rubble (Goodman).

In the agricultural society, having a more simplified religious system helped to control the masses - everyone was seemingly to be on one accord with the elite having a higher status within the religious infrastructure. As mentioned, the powers that be wanted to ensure surplus food availability for non-farmers and the workers/farmers were required to fulfill that demand (Diamond - "The World Until Yesterday"). For that purpose, religion (Christianity or not) was used as a vehicle for making sure people fulfilled those demands and acted appropriately. In other words, from the outset there was a system of slave-like conditions.
As Diamond has said, one of the functions of religion was "organization and obedience". (Diamond - "The World Until Yesterday"). Below he explains the process: does the chief or king get the peasants to tolerate what is basically the theft of their food by classes of social parasites?....The solution devised by every well-understood chiefdom and early state society - from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, through Polynesia, Hawaii, to the Inca Empire - was to proclaim an organized religion with the following tenets: the chief or king is related to the gods, or even is a god; and he or she can intercede with the gods on behalf of the peasants, e.g., to send rain or to ensure a good harvest (Diamond - "The World Until Yesterday").
To repeat, the agricultural society, with its its attendant monotheistic faith, was overall about hierarchy and wealth accumulation. 

Karl Marl, who wisely noted that religion was an "opiate" of the masses, would appreciate Diamond's historical account. Yet, Marx's "opiate" strategy had been created centuries before his assessment in the 19th century. Also, as the Dalai Lama has stated, "Marx was not actually against religion or religious philosophy per se, but 'against religious institutions that were allied, during Marx's time, with the European ruling class'" (Smithers).   

Monotheism in Europe

The control of the people continued as monotheism became engrained in the subsequent European culture. Further, with Christianity, Europeans ultimately decided they had all the answers regarding the creation story and everything else religious, which included the correct way to worship with all the attendant ceremonies that developed over time. As they proclaimed they had all the answers, anyone who might challenge Christianity in Europe and most certainly those outside of Europe, was suspect. Further, historically, as Christianity became more powerful throughout much of the early church history, anyone who challenged the church in Europe was often vulnerable to losing his or her livelihood or life.

In addition to a food supply through exploitation and desire for wealth, the diverse agricultural society began to build structures, buildings, vehicles for travel (sea and land), and weapons systems to eventually control more land and people of the world. Europeans thought of themselves superior compared to others, under the circumstances, or compared to those without these structures, weapons and Christianity.   

For centuries, the Catholic Church was ultimately the largest and most powerful Christian entity in Europe. Ultimately, the formidable aristocracy and the governments aligned themselves with the church as well, of course - it was too dangerous not to do so. And through the excessive violence of the Crusades (starting in 1096) and other intimidating practices, the Catholic Church made sure it had an obedient populace throughout its geographic area in Europe. But regardless of whether it was the Catholic or ultimately the addition of the Protestant church in Europe, the fundamentals of the faith were much the same. Virtually all had belief in the selfsame God, Jesus, the gospels etc., in varying degrees, and they all seemingly agreed (outwardly at least) that this was the ultimate truth. With their certainty of the truth, Europeans then colonized most of the world along with their missionaries as the shock troops.  

A different spirituality or religion other than Christianity was, therefore,  an excuse to exploit other cultures throughout the world. This was, then, coupled with "people of color", other than those with white skin, as another excuse to exploit. It was a deadly mixture - Christianity plus racism. I define racism as follows: "Almost everyone or every group discriminates in some way, however "racism" is having the power to enforce your discriminatory attitudes or beliefs". Europeans ultimately had the "power" to enforce their discriminatory beliefs and we still suffer from this. 
Europeans in their arrogance even decided, as another excuse to exploit, that people other than themselves were not human or perhaps did not have souls.
British historian Michael Wood says it best. He "asserts that the indigenous peoples were not considered to be human beings and that the colonizers were shaped by 'centuries of Ethnocentrism, and Christian monotheism, which espoused one truth, one time and version of reality''" (Wikipedia).
This "superior" attitude predominated as Europeans began to colonize and it was around this time that racial differences became yet another tool for exploitation to take other lands and control its people. In a review of  of Robert Sussman's "Myth of Race" (2014) the following is noted about the beginnings racial hierarchies:  

These hierarchies of racial inequality were created around the same time as European exploration and colonisation was beginning. In the ensuing five centuries, there has been a more sophisticated development of notions of race that incorporate science, politics, religion and social organisation to promote ruling regimes at the expense of the powerless (Moses)   
Concerning ideas about those outside of Europe, it is best expressed by the Pope himself. The first wave of European colonialism and empire building, in fact, started in the early 15th century with the Portuguese conquest of Cueta in 1415 and has been on-going ever since in varying degrees. Here's information about the Pope's comments in 1455:

Religious zeal played a large role in Spanish and Portuguese overseas activities. While the Pope himself was a political power to be heeded (as evidenced by his authority to decree whole continents open to colonization by particular kings), the Church also sent missionaries to convert to the Catholic faith the indigenous of other continents. Thus, the 1455 Papal Bull Romanus Pontifex granted the Portuguese all lands behind Cape Bojador and allowed them to reduce pagans and other enemies of Christ to perpetual slavery (Wikipedia).
The above was the "Bull Romanus Pontifex (Nicholas V) on January 8, 1455. Here is some background:

The kingdoms of Portugal and Castile had been jockeying for position and possession of colonial territories along the African coast for more than a century prior to Columbus' "discovery" of lands in the western seas. On the theory that the Pope was an arbitrator between nations, each kingdom had sought and obtained Papal bulls at various times to bolster its claims, on the grounds that its activities served to spread Christianity.

The bull Romanus Pontifex is an important example of the Papacy's claim to spiritual lordship of the whole world and of its role in regulating relations among Christian princes and between Christians and "unbelievers" ("heathens" and "infidels"). This bull became the basis for Portugal's later claim to lands in the "new world," a claim which was countered by Castile and the bull Inter caetera in 1493 (Native Web).
Essentially, the Pope in 1455 gave his followers the message that anyone in the world who didn't believe in Christ (the pagans) could be enslaved forever.  In fact, finally, it was in the 1990's that Pope John Paul II apologized for much the Catholic Church had done for centuries including its involvement in the African slave trade - see below a partial list of the Pope's apologies in the 1990's.    

Pope Paul II's apologies in 1990s and 2000s   

Pope Paul II officially made public apologies for over 100 of wrongdoings by the Catholic Church, including (the dates are when he made the apology). Below are some of these apologies: 

* The legal process on the Italian scientist and philosopher Galileo Galilei, himself a devout Catholic, around 1633 (31 October 1992).

* Catholics' involvement with the African slave trade (9 August 1993).

* The Church's role in burnings at the stake and the religious wars that followed the Protestant Reformation (May 1995, in the Czech Republic).

* The injustices committed against women, the violation of women's rights and for the historical denigration of women (29 May 1995, in a "letter to women").

* The inactivity and silence of many Catholics during the Holocaust (16 March 1998)

* For the execution of Jan Hus in 1415 (18 December 1999 in Prague). When John Paul II visited Prague in 1990s, he requested experts in this matter "to define with greater clarity the position held by Jan Hus among the Church's reformers, and acknowledged that "independently of the theological convictions he defended, Hus cannot be denied integrity in his personal life and commitment to the nation's moral education." It was another step in building a bridge between Catholics and Protestants.

* For the sins of Catholics throughout the ages for violating "the rights of ethnic groups and peoples, and [for showing] contempt for their cultures and religious traditions". (12 March 2000, during a public Mass of Pardons).

* For the actions of the Crusader attack on Constantinople in 1204. To the Patriarch of Constantinople he said "Some memories are especially painful, and some events of the distant past have left deep wounds in the minds and hearts of people to this day. I am thinking of the disastrous sack of the imperial city of Constantinople, which was for so long the bastion of Christianity in the East. It is tragic that the assailants, who had set out to secure free access for Christians to the Holy Land, turned against their own brothers in the faith. The fact that they were Latin Christians fills Catholics with deep regret. How can we fail to see here the mysterium iniquitatis at work in the human heart? ".

On 20 November 2001,  from a laptop in the Vatican, Pope John Paul II sent his first e-mail apologising for the Catholic sex abuse cases, the Church-backed "Stolen Generations" of Aboriginal children in Australia, and to China for the behaviour of Catholic missionaries in colonial times.
An excuse is worse and more terrible than a lie, for an excuse is a lie guarded.
-Pope John Paul II  (Wikipedia)


As the monotheistic concept spread to various parts of the world, the west encountered hunter-gatherer societies that had, of course, maintained their religious traditions as they had done for thousands of years. The hunter-gatherers, then, were ultimately to come up against aggressive and often arrogant Christians, who served the interests of the colonizers, who undermined these traditional societies, tried to control and, in many cases, destroy them altogether. After all, the European elite sought land, natural resources and labor for their own benefit.    

It was this background out of which white supremacist attitudes grew and prevailed. Europeans thought they were superior because of the things they made and the beliefs they decided were true compared to everyone else. The Catholic church, among others, helped to mold this attitude.

The apologies from the Pope are certainly helpful and welcome, but we still suffer from the consequences of these church policies and attitudes that have in many instances become engrained in the western psyche.

Agriculture and monotheism also radically changed our social relationships from egalitarianism within our group, as hunter-gatherers, as well as between women and men. It importantly, in the European model, led toward racial inequality and slavery and moved us further away from nature.   
In summary, the advent of agriculture was not about need or nutrition as some might say, it was ultimately about wealth for the few. Regarding the partnership between agriculture and monotheism, monotheism and/or religion was used as a tool to control the masses and perhaps to offer some comfort to those being exploited.  Marx was right.  

Armstrong, Karen A History of God: The 4000 Year Quest for Judaism, Christianity and Islam, A Ballantine Book, (Random House) (1993)

Beckert, Sven Empire of Cotton: A Global History Borzoi Book (Alfred A Knopf) (2014)

Diamond, Jared   

Goodman, Lion "The Divine Masculine" Women Waking the Woirld (October 25, 2014)  

Lorenz, David, The Role of the Christian Missionaries in Chinua Achebe's 'Things Fall Apart Seminar Paper, University of Stuttgart (May 2005)
(June 2014)   

Luthuli, Albert Let My People Go: The Autobiography of Albert Luthuli  Tafleberg Publishers and Mafube Publishing (2006) 

Manning, Richard Against the Grain: How Agriculture has Hijacked Civilization, North Print Press (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux) (2004)

Smithers, Stuart "The Spiritual Crisis of Capitalism: What would the Buddha do?" Adbusters  (29 June 2012)

 President and Fellows of Harvard College (2014) 
Wells, Spencer  The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey   Penguin, UK; Princeton University Press and Random House, US (2002)

White, Matthew Atrocities: The 100 Deadliest Episodes in Human History W.W. Norton & Company (2011)
Heather Gray is a writer and radio producer in Atlanta, Georgia and has also lived in Canada, Australia, Singapore, briefly in the Philippines and has traveled in southern Africa. She served as the director of the Non-Violent Program for Coretta Scott King in the mid-1980's in Atlanta; and for 24 years worked with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund focusing on Black farmer issues and cooperative economic development. She holds degrees in anthropology and sociology.

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