Good Souls and Greedy Atoms
By Gwydion M. Williams
‘Walter Cobb’ [pen-name] looks at the various strange ways in which people who call themselves Christians manage to justify capitalism and the encouragement of greedy selfish behaviour. He puts a socialist alternative. (Written in 1990.)
Mrs Thatcher has said that society does not exist. She has argued that the best policy is to encourage everyone to follow their own immediate personal interests – to be a greedy atom, in fact. Yet at the same time she makes a public display of her Christian faith, and as far as anyone can tell is totally sincere in it. On the one hand, people are to be greedy atoms. On the other, they are to be good souls. And she really seems to see no contradiction between the two.
This is not a personal peculiarity of Mrs Thatcher. It is a paradox that is deeply embedded in the whole development of liberal capitalism. Many people noted the split. One of the best illustrations was in Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, where there are two banking systems, with two separate currencies. That of the ‘musical banks’, (official religion), is publicly praised as highly valuable, but treated as worthless in day-to-day transactions. The other banks, corresponding to the practical morality of law and commercial practice, issue the currency that people actually value. (Erewhon includes many good parodies, including a very clever reducto ad absurdum of vegetarianism.)
Despite such parodies, liberal capitalism has continued to run on two essentially separate systems of morality. Social necessity tends to be much more important than ideological purity. After all, the original Christians were a powerless sect with no ideas at all as to how society should be run, and no expectation that the question would ever arise. In this they resembled some of the extreme Protestants sects which reject the world as totally wicked and doomed to destruction. It was only when the Roman Empire started crumbling all about them that Christian bishops had to accept responsibility for running society in a world that showed no immediate signs of coming to an end.
Christianity played a part in starting liberal capitalism. Appeals to the Bible were used to undermine the authority of the Catholic Church and the old feudal order. Protestants went back to the Old Testament, with its assumption of a society of independent small producers. But when Protestant societies began evolving towards capitalism, the faith was modified to take account of this. People were encouraged to believe that they could at one and the same time be both good souls and greedy atoms.
People assume that the ideas of one God, of moral requirements that limit spontaneous human desires and of reward and punishment in an afterlife naturally belong together. In fact, this need not be true at all. Religion and morality were not in the beginning very much connected. Religion was a way of appeasing powerful, dangerous and basically amoral spirits or gods. Morality was proper conduct towards ones’ fellow human beings.
Later religions tried to combine these things, with mixed results. It is certainly past time to separate them.
[For a more developed version of this, see Religions as Imperfect Human Understanding. Also In a Hole In a Hole Dwelt a Nothingness, for why subatomic physics is not in fact bad news.]
The notion that morality can only be religious runs so deep in Western culture that even militant humanists feel the need to carefully explain how they can be moral people without believing in God. The question should be reversed. Can a religious person, believing in infinite punishments for misbehaviour and infinite rewards for doing the right thing, be said to be truly moral even when what they do is good?
The official position is that a properly religious person will do good for love of God, and not because of fear of punishment or hope of reward. But for the benefit of the rank and file, the threats and rewards are emphasised. They are even manipulated. Disobeying the religious authorities, even for what seem pretty good reasons, is sure to end you up in hell. On the other hand a Crusade or Jihad, brutal warfare against people who reject the authority of your own particular religion, is a reliable path to heaven
Religion has gone into decline, because very few people today could think about heaven and hell in such a matter-of-fact and unquestioning way. When religion started to go into decline, there was a widespread fear among the ruling classes, and among people who identified with the ruling class interest, that a decline in religion must mean a decline in morality. I do not accept that this has in fact happened. People used to do the most terrible deeds with the assurance of the religious authorities that it was all OK with God. 19th century industrialists, many of whom were devoutly religious, did not feel inhibited from squeezing their workers as hard as they could, down to and sometimes below the minimum necessary for survival. For every religious authority who protested, there were a hundred who supported this exploitation and declared it pleasing to God. In practice, people are just as likely to behave decently as an end it itself. as to behave decently out of hope of heaven and fear of hell.
The religion of ancient Israel gave rise to three faiths – Islam, Christianity and modern Judaism. More than half the world’s population follow one or other of these faiths. And all see the notion of heaven and hell as fundamental to their morality. Despite this, it is very unlikely that the ancient Israelites had any such belief.
Though I agreed with most of Brendan Clifford’s article on Multiculturalism (L&TUR 11), I think that he concedes too much to Khomeini and his ilk by saying that the idea of Heaven and Hell follow on naturally from the notion of God. The notion of heaven and hell was originally separate from monotheism. Greek paganism believed in a hell for the wicked, and (maybe) a heaven for the very good Egyptian religion promised a pleasant afterlife for the reasonably good, and a dire underworld for the wicked or for those whose funeral preparations were inadequate.
“As a matter of fact, the belief in life beyond the grave reached its culminating point in Egypt four or five thousand years ago, when the rich, at any rate, seemed to have spent more money in provision for their future life than for their present. To judge from what has come down to us of his writings, Moses, the Man of God, who was well versed in Egyptian religion, had no more use for a future life than for the worship of crocodiles.” ( J. B. S. Haldane, Possible Worlds.)
There is serious doubt about whether the founders of Judaism actually believed in an afterlife:
” … the first seven books of the Bible… are full of religion and ethics, but contain no reference to human survival of death. Nor did the Palmist believe in it. The dead praise not Thee, 0 Lord’, he said, ‘neither all they that go down into silence•. (Ibid.)
Or look at the Book of Job. It has no suggestion that the good may be rewarded after death. It is the first thought that would occur to a modern Jew, Christian or Muslim who had to console a virtuous friend, but nothing at all is said of it. In the Book of Samuel, the doomed King Saul has the prophet Samuel summoned as a shade by the Witch of Endor – the dead survive, but only as vague ghosts, and with no difference between the good and the wicked. Even as late as the time of Jesus, there were many devout Jews who did not accept the notion of an afterlife.
Witness his arguments with the Sadducees. (Matthew 22.23-33.)
This problem does not apply to the Koran, of course. In the Koran, the prophets who came before Muhammed are found to be saying almost exactly the same things as Muhammed himself said. Where older religious texts say things about those prophets that contradict the Koran, this is held by Muslims to be a case of corruption and distortion of those older texts.
One can be impressed by the very high standard of personal conduct that can be seen in many Muslim countries. On the other hand, those countries also had slavery and a rigid exclusion of women from public life, before they came under Western influence. And both of these things can be justified from the Quran and the systems of Islamic law that were developed from it. Slavery is accepted as valid in many Quranic verses, and the last remnants of slavery are to be found only in Islamic countries.
(Incidentally, it is only recently that most devout Christians have been willing to speak of Muslims, rather than Muhammedans. Muslim is a decent rendering in English of what the people call themselves. Muhammedan implies that the book and the faith derives from a man, and not from God. In English usage, the two terms both go back to the 17th century – and Mussulman, no longer in use, goes back to the 16th. The persistent use of Muhammedan, despite the objections of those to whom it was applied, has to be considered an example of intolerance.
Anglicanism is by no means always a model of tolerance. It was insensitive of the Archbishop of Canterbury to speak of Pharisees when he was denouncing some of the evils of modern life. The Pharisees whom Jesus disputes with in the New Testament were the founders of Rabbinical Judaism, the variety of Judaism that survived the Roman destruction of the Jewish homeland. The original disputes were disputes between Jews. [Always assuming that the version given in the Bible is accurate – Jesus may have been much closer to the Pharisees than his later followers cared to admit.] In any case, polemics that were originally between Jews have been used as the basis for Christian anti-Semitism over the centuries. Someone in Runcie’s position should have known this and been more careful what he said.)
Science can explain the whole history of the Universe over the past ten to twenty thousand million years. The formation of the Earth, the origins of life and the origins of humanity can be understood in terms of known scientific principles. Some things remain mysterious – including the origin of the Universe in the Big Bang. And many scientists are religious. But the notion of a God who started the Big Bang several thousand million years ago is not quite the same as the traditional and popular notion of a God who notices it when you swear and decides whether or not your car tyre will have a puncture.
I doubt the existence of a creator-God. But the issue is basically impossible to settle. Once it is established that nothing in the known universe points to the existence of a creator-God, then there is little point in arguing with people who still want to believe in a creator. Humanism has gone into a decline precisely because the main argument has been won.
Morality should be no more than a practical system whereby human societies can operate for mutual long-term benefit. There are of course many legitimate ways to understand the vague concept of ‘mutual long-term benefit’. I understand it in a socialist sense, both at a personal and a political level. But I see no clear or inevitable link between socialism and any form of belief or disbelief. In practice, people make very different links between their religious beliefs and their political ideologies. Christians, Jews, Muslims, agnostics, atheists and skeptics are distributed right across the political spectrum. And their personal conduct shows an equally wide range of good and bad behaviour.
If socialists want to get anywhere, they must relearn the basic lesson that morality is necessary. Nothing that is built without some firm moral purpose can be expected to be very successful, and the blatantly immoral politicking of many Labour politicians has done the party great harm. Thatcher has benefited from the fact that she clearly believes very very firmly in what she is doing – a marked contrast to the sort of poll-watching media-worshiping politician ridiculed in the BBC series Yes Minister. (Yes Minister is one of Thatcher’s favourite programmes, and some people find this very puzzling!)
Doubts about the existence of God should not mean doubts about the usefulness of morality, of codes of conduct that stop each person from acting in their own immediate and short-term interests. The matter was confused in the 1960s by a general loosening of restrictions – more sexual freedom and a greater measure of informality. But this was a change of morality, not a breakdown of morality. Confusion spread – very few people would care to view themselves as immoral, but most are also unhappy at affirming that moral values are important
The Green movement owes some of its success to being a new morality. It is separate from (though compatible with) the various existing religious faiths. It very much accepts the changes of sexual and social behaviour that occurred in the 1960s. But it has some new moral rules – not wasting Resources, preserving the world’s wild places, etc.. I disagree with the Green mainstream on some issues – certainly, nuclear power is feared out of all proportion to its actual dangers. One could say that it has been defined as sinful in the new morality: taboo to Greens just as pork is taboo to Muslims and Jews. But the basic feeling – an affirmation that we are a part of nature, in a state of mutual dependency – is valid and should be accepted by all socialists. Indeed. it has always been a part of the socialist tradition. Socialists should remember the basic lesson – systems of morality evolved. not to please a probably non-existent God, but because they were useful in the long term for the whole society. They are thus the highest form of pragmatism. the most enlightened form of enlightened self-interest
Leninism assumed that it was above morality. The subsequent history of Leninism indicates that this was a serious misjudgement Trotsky arrogantly told his defeated socialist rivals to ‘lie quietly in the dustbin of history’. He then got indignant when he himself was dumped into the same dustbin. He spent his years in exile explaining that it was one thing for him and Lenin to suppress the Anarchists, Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries etc, and something quite different for Stalin to use exactly the same methods to suppress Trotsky’s own supporters. And a surprisingly large number of intelligent people have believed him, with fairly disastrous results for socialism. Meanwhile, the Leninist states were unable to find a coherent way forward from Stalin’s way of doing things. Khrushchev applied exactly the same logic as Trotsky – everything that Stalin did was wrong, but when I myself do exactly the same thing rm right
The Labour party has the advantage of a more complex and diverse tradition. It has always had its moralists as well as its cynics and opportunists. It has also been able to include people of a great variety of religious faiths, or of no religious faith at all. The common feeling has been the desire to make a better life for everyone. There are legitimate grounds for differences on which particular policies are the best for doing this. But people should not be scared of directly stressing the moral case – while leaving religion as a matter of private faith.
This article appeared in July 1990, in Issue 18 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.