Source: The New International, New York, Vol. 2 No. 1, January 1935, pp. 29–30.
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The Passing of the Gods
by V.P. Calverton
320 pp. New York. Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.50.
In three hundred pages V.F. Calverton attempts to say a great many things about religion from primitive times to the present. Here, however, I should like to limit myself to one central point: the contrast between the conception of the nature of religion suggested by Marx and that of Calverton.
Calverton’s main thesis is that the savage’s fear of his natural environment, plus institutional and ideological inertia, accounts for the existence of religion. Religion arose because of primitive man’s inability to control his environment, and seemed to give man power to fulfil his economic needs. Then, in the last few centuries, “the agricultural world which had perpetuated the religious mentality began to give way to an industrial world in which that type of mentality was no longer needed. As the discovery of natural laws prepared the way for the mechanical inventions that made possible the Industrial Revolution, man became less dependent upon the gods and more dependent upon science for the power he needed over his environment” (p.87).
Calverton has obscured this general thesis by also accepting Frazer’s. Frazer makes a fundamental distinction between magic and religion; magic is for him primitive science, religion is primitive metaphysics. This distinction – which has been abandoned not only by most anthropologists but also by serious liberal religionists like A. Eustace Haydon, Shirley Jackson Case, etc. – has an apologetic function; it serves to obscure the instrumental character of religion; and is, in fact, logically contradictory to Calverton’s general thesis.
As for Calverton’s main thesis, it leads him to insist that religion today is disappearing; in line with this notion, he says:
“The best proof of that fact [that religion is disappearing] is to be seen in what has happened to Russia ... Today the religious, metaphysical mind has evaporated. Why? Because Soviet Russia has become an industrialized state ... The result has been that the religious mentality has been driven into irrecoverable retreat within the span of little more than a decade.” (p. 89.)
In capitalist countries, too, religion is fast disappearing.
“Notwithstanding all that may be said to the contrary, notwithstanding all the statistics of membership that the churches may cite, the fact remains that the religious mentality is in a state of disintegration and decay, with no hope left for its recovery. Its social purpose has been superseded by that of science.” (p. 89.)
In further proof of the death of religion, Calverton produces figures (p. 263) which he has apparently misunderstood: for they show church membership to be growing proportionally with the population, though stationary in percentage: whereas for Calverton’s thesis there would have to be a precipitous fall. Then, Calverton (perhaps attempting to overcome this contradiction) says:
“But the decline and decay of religion in America is more of a qualitative than a quantitative phenomenon. It is in spirit far more than in numbers that American religion has deteriorated.” (p. 267)
Here, of course, Calverton confuses two different meanings of decay: it is one thing to say that religion is decaying, meaning that by present intellectual and moral criteria it is no longer progressive: it is entirely different, and inadmissable, to say that religion is decaying in the sense that the churches are about to disappear.
A Marxist can have little in common with Calverton’s position. Throughout, when Calverton speaks of the “environment”, it is always clear from the context that he means the physical environment. This is particularly obvious in all references to science as giving us control over “the environment”. This is the position of bourgeois atheism, which holds that religion is generated as an escape from frustrations imposed on primitive man by uncontrolled nature, but which will not recognize the frustrations imposed on modern man by uncontrolled (bourgeois) forces of production.
What bourgeois atheism fails to recognize is that frustrations imposed by uncontrolled nature were social frustrations. The fetishism of nature which generated the primitive and ancient religions was the result of the fact that the social process of labor, that is the interaction of society with nature, was not fortified by adequate techniques; this social condition has long been supplanted as the main condition for the existence of religion. Calverton and bourgeois atheists fail to understand this too. But the fetishism which today sustains religion is what Marx called the fetishism of commodities. This means that the process of producing commodities is not mastered by society but is today the master of society.
Society’s labor appears to it in the form of elemental forces beyond its control. Forces so independent of control appear in the realm of experience, inevitably, as non-social forces indistinguishable from natural catastrophes. Business failures and crimes, war and poverty appear as though by the inexorable hand of fate. And to the individual, neither will, nor foresight, nor effort are in any way commensurate with results: the worker toils and yet starves, and is thrown out of work to suffer still more, by forces which cannot but seem mysterious and evil to him; the bourgeois is equally in the hands of fate, for there is no relation between his efforts and rewards; he is superstitious when he plays a In on the stockmarket and wins, and equally superstitious when business prospers or fails. Commodities, the products of society’s own efforts, rear up like monsters to overwhelm their maker. Men are frustrated at every. turn by their own social relations. There is a basic dualism between social ethics and practical activity. Attempts to satisfy our needs or potentialities by the secular techniques fail or are frustrates. It is inevitable under these circumstances that many should turn for satisfaction to the religious techniques.
The bourgeois atheist cannot understand this process because he cannot admit that the bourgeoisie is not the master of society’s productive forces. For him historical contradictions ended with feudalism, and thereafter there are only problems for science to solve in the course of its development. Even the liberal bourgeois aware of what he calls the “social problem” proposes its solution by new scientific processes or by the application of “knowledge”, i.e., by agreed upon technical methods, and not by social methods – which upon analysis mean class struggle. For the bourgeois atheist, therefore, it is impossible to understand that the roots of religion today are social, that no amount of enlightenment can break up the religious complex until the fetichisms which generate it are done away with by the building of a form of society which will be master of the productive forces. The Yaroslayskvs of the Soviet Union may make their vulgar boasts that they are doing away with religion, and many may believe them, but this is merely another perverted derivative of the theory of socialism in one country. Russia is in the grip of world economy, and to the Russian masses, too, in spite of the gigantic industrial developments, the forces of production cannot but still appear as forces with a demonic life of their own: the Protestant sects which have been springing up in the Soviet Union throughout the last ten years are proof of this fact.
Speaking of the fetishism of commodities, Marx says,
“Such reflections of the real world will not disappear until the relations between human beings in their practical everyday life have assumed the aspect of perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations as between man and man, and as between man and nature. The life process of society, this meaning the material process of production, will not lose its veil of mystery until it becomes a process carried on by a free association of producers, under their conscious and purposive control.”
Calverton’s analysis of religion contains not an inkling of the main condition for the existence of religion today! Not a word about the process whereby man’s own labors confront him as independent forces. Calverton is, in this book as in much other work, ridden by the genetic fallacy. He thinks the primary origin of religion must still be its basis; and is ready to go so far, in fact, as to make religion a cultural hang-over, as it were, from the days when agriculture was the dominant form of production. This is hopelessly undialectical. Religion may have many origins, as may anything else which has a history. No Marxist would thinkingly put himself in the intellectual position that his criticism of religion today depended on its historical origins. What he is interested in is, primarily, the conditions for the existence of religion today.
Of these conditions there is no analysis at all in this book. In other words, this is a book designed to attack religion as a capitalist institution but which really cannot do so because it does not reveal the reasons for the existence of religion tinder capitalism.
Last updated on: 13 May 2016