In a recent article for the Guardian, based on his new book The God Argument, AC Grayling defends humanism by contrasting it with religious belief which he sees as archaic. The contrast involves one of light and darkness: humanism (in its modern guise), quite literally a product of enlightenment vs. religion, which shrouds our perceptions in darkness and demands that we “think of the world as our remotest ancestors did, thousands of years ago”.Frieze from Mesopotamia
Frieze featuring the Mesopotamian king Ashurnasirpal, British Museum

The juxtaposition is nothing new. The image of sinister priests illuminated by the flames of burning heretics is one seared into contemporary consciousness. Many of us have the instinctive sense that the age of enlightenment was founded by the extravagant tussles between a crepuscular religious medievalism and a new-born science of modernity. There is truth in this. At the same time, however, the distinction between science and religion has never been hard and fast; in fact at various points across history, the relationship was far from hostile.

Consider the early civilisations which sprung up in Mesopotamia, Egypt and parts of what is now Pakistan. Large store-houses were constructed to protect surplus crops (usually grain) vital to the continued sustenance of a society during drought, flooding or other natural disasters. The need to quantify, to measure, to effectively store and apportion the reserve crops, facilitated the development of early science, a primitive form of maths and, a little later, the first attempts to construct a cogent written script (they needed to keep receipts!).

The coterie of specialists tasked with this had been freed from the burden and immediacies of productive labour. They were able to affect the first scientific revolutions in consort with the intimate control they exerted over social mechanisms that helped assure the survival of the broader populous. The specialists, therefore, were shrouded in an aura of mystique and power which inevitably invited reverence and worship. And so these early scientists easily morphed into civilisation’s first priests.

Thus religious formation often involves more than the irrational and isolated fantasies confined to the primitive fears of the imagination – it also mediates key social relationships albeit ones expressed in a fantastical and mystical way. The 19th century German thinker Ludwig Feuerbach reflected on this in a way at once both poetic and philosophical – in religion, he said – “the conscious subject has for his object the infinity of his own nature”.

The notion of religion as a mirror for human development is supported by the historical record more broadly. When early Christianity began to emerge in ancient Rome, the pagan critic Celsus famously described it as a religion of “slaves, women and little children”. He was being derisive but the comment tells us more than its author ever intended. In an empire often fissured by slave rebellion, and one in which women could not hold political office and children had the legal status of property - a religion which emphasised a universal equality before God provided an ideological channel through which the struggles and hopes of oppressed groups might be expressed.

But even substantially later, at the time of the enlightenment, religion still sometimes managed to mediate progressive social forces. The outbreak of Protestantism in the early 16th century had an implicitly radical element. Lutheranism very much emerged as a reaction to a feudal hierarchy in which aristocratic privilege was sanctioned by Catholic ideology; a wealthy baron might well dispatch his mistress in a bloody frenzy, only to pop down to the local church the following day and buy the “indulgence” which would spare him earthly punishment and secure his immortal soul. Lutheranism, with its emphasis on faith rather than works, sought to end this – Godliness was to be guaranteed by a universality of faith which ignored economic distinction, and favoured neither peasant nor lord.

The universality of faith over and against the particularism of works reflected – albeit in a fantastical and unconscious form – the emergence of a modern market economy which was indifferent to social status more generally, requiring only a buyer and a seller. Much later Max Weber would provide a riff on the same theme when he suggested that Protestantism could be understood as part and parcel of “the spirit of capitalism”.

None of this militates against the horrific historical events which have occurred under the banner of religion – the crusades and the concomitant pogroms of Jews, or the persecution of witches by James I in the name of Protestantism, or the forced conversions to Catholicism which accompanied the genocide of the indigenous peoples in Latin America, or any other of the numerous and terrible examples. But what it shows is that religion is a medium which can express a variety of different and contrary social interests – from Roman Imperialism to Catholic liberation theology; it cannot, therefore, be simply understood as an unfortunate set of irrational beliefs detached from any social content.

But, as Jonathan Rée points out in this review of The God Argument, Grayling remains blind to all this, preferring, it seems, to adopt a fundamentally literal attitude to religion in which “scriptures must be taken at their word, rather than being allowed to flourish as many-layered parables, teeming with quarrels, follies, jokes, reversals and paradoxes”. This, of course, makes invisible the fact that religions are themselves constantly in the process of being formed and (if you will forgive the pun) re-formed – even those sacred texts which seem timeless and whose claim to unswerving fidelity to the original divine writ is said to be (sometimes quite literally) set in stone have in in fact been subject to perpetual and unceasing transformation.

Just consider, for instance, the work of the great Islamic philosopher Averroes, who endeavoured to synthesise religion with Aristotleanism in the 12th century. It was the preservation of the Greek philosophical tradition through the Islamic which would provide a fundamental premise for the European Enlightenment. The very tendency which would eventually lead to Grayling’s beloved humanism was unthinkable without this fusion of religion and philosophy.