For most people in Britain today Christmas is not primarily a religious occasion. It is rather a mix of commercialism, overindulgence in food and drink, hopes of a pleasant time with family and friends and for many the reality of bitter disappointment of such hopes.
But in the midst of all this the religious roots of Christmas icons are constantly invoked, from carols and school nativity plays to pious sermons from bishops and on radio and television. And while the Millennium which will soon be upon us may be a convenient excuse for dodgy projects like the Dome, it is also a reminder that we still count years from the supposed birth of Christ. Nor should we forget that Christianity remains the official 'established' religion of the British state.
What are the origins of this religion, and what role has and does religion play in society?
The claim is that 1997 years ago, in Bethlehem in Palestine, Jesus the son of god was born. He died on the cross, we are told, so that we sinners might be saved. The evidence for this and all the other claims of Christianity, from Jesus being born of a virgin to his having risen from the dead, is the Bible. That someone called Jesus lived in Palestine around 2,000 years ago seems probable, though apart from the Bible there is little hard evidence for even that and virtually none whatever for anything more about him.
There is, however, a serious problem with relying on the Bible as evidence. Generations of scholars have shown that the gospels which give an account of Jesus and his teachings were collected and written long after the events they claim to describe. They also contain obvious errors, and, moreover, contain two fundamentally contradictory accounts of Jesus.
In the first two centuries after Jesus lived there were a mass of documents and stories about him circulating in Christian circles. It was not until after 180 AD that leaders of the Christian church began to argue that only four of these accounts were valid, and should be the four gospels we have today. And it was not until the 4th century that this was finally agreed.
The four gospels themselves were fairly certainly written between 70 and 150 years after Jesus died, long after any of the events they claim to describe. In them we hear of fantastic events, from the dead living again to the earth being plunged into darkness for hours. Yet, strangely, not one of the many writers who lived at the time as opposed to decades afterwards, whose work has survived ever noticed or even heard about any of these remarkable things. More interesting, however, are the two fundamentally different accounts of Jesus within the gospels, which point to the real social and historical roots of Christianity.
Palestine was part of the vast Roman Empire at the time Jesus lived. The Jewish people had a long tradition of popular resistance to previous empires which had dominated the area, and much of the Old Testament is concerned with this tradition. That resistance flared up again under Roman domination. Some leading Jewish religious figures collaborated with the Romans. But a whole series of groups, such as the Zealots, agitated for resistance and rebellion. Parts of the gospels and the teachings of Jesus clearly echo this rebellious current.
So Mary, Jesus's mother, sums up 'the lord's message' like this 'He has brought down mighty kings from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with empty hands.'
Jesus himself thunders, 'Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the world. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword!' And he urges, 'Whoever does not have a sword must sell his coat and buy one,' for 'I come to set the earth on fire and how I wish it were already kindled.' This is the Jesus who sweeps the money lenders from temple and who is greeted with cries of 'Hosannah!' when he enters Jerusalem which means 'Free us!'
Jewish revolt against Roman control finally erupted in a great rebellion between 66 and 70 AD, but was utterly and brutally broken, and Jerusalem destroyed, by the legions of the great empire. The gospels were written in the years after this and the militant Jesus they talk about is clearly an echo of the earlier revolutionary tradition.
But the gospels also contain a quite different account of Jesus, one which reflects the defeated hopes of change in this world. This is the Jesus whose kingdom 'is not of this world' and who preaches passive acceptance of one's lot with the hope of salvation only after death. 'The meek shall inherit the earth', but only in the next life. The rulers must be obeyed, argues this Jesus 'Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's', and do not rebel against those who oppress you but 'turn the other cheek'.
This Jesus is most clearly expressed in the gospel according to John, but is there in all the others to varying degrees. It is also the Jesus of the teaching of the apostles after his death. So Paul speaks in his letters, or epistles, not of bringing kings down from their thrones and feeding the hungry, but of personal salvation in the next life and obeying the existing authorities in this who, he argues, have been put there by god. 'Slaves, obey your human masters,' he counselled.
After the defeat of the Jewish revolt Christianity also began to spread away from its Jewish roots to the Greek speaking cities of the eastern Roman Empire. As it did so it became not a call to rebellion but a creed of acceptance, a solace to the poor and those who suffered under Roman rule. It was just one of a vast array of competing cults at the time, and it shamelessly adopted parts of these cults and rival traditions as it spread. The virgin birth, the crucifixion and resurrection from the dead, the idea of Christmas being on 25 December, and many other aspects of what Christianity became were simply borrowed from rival cults.
Early Christians were often poor and lived communally. But by the 4th century a bureaucratic elite of bishops and priests had developed. They were often rich, and often slaveowners, and controlled the growing wealth and property by now in the hands of the church. Roman rulers no longer saw any threat from such people, but rather a corporate body which could be a key ally and which could play a vital ideological role in shoring up the existing social order. The need for such a shoring up was growing as by then the Roman Empire itself was in deep trouble both from internal difficulties and class division, and pressure from outside forces.
So in 313 AD the Roman emperor Constantine officially embraced Christianity which became the state religion. The move did not long save the Roman Empire, but for the next 1,200 years Christianity, in the form of the Roman Catholic church, continued to be the official state religion of most of Europe and dominated all life, ideas and politics.
In its first few centuries, then, Christianity had shown many faces, from a call to revolt in the here and now, to a creed of acceptance of their lot and solace for the oppressed, and an ideological and organisational buttress for the ruling class. This pattern, the ability of religion to play all these roles, has been repeated ever since and is true of religions other than Christianity too.
So under feudal society in Europe the Catholic Church became an absolutely central component at every level of the established order. Kings ruled by divine right and the church was a vast feudal landowner in its own right. The church preached that the class divisions in society were simply the natural god given order of things, and attempts to change them would lead to the eternal fires of hell.
While the church reflected and justified the established order it also, however, continued to provide solace to the poor and suffering to help bear their lot, in the hope at least of better in the world to come. Many years later, in the wake of the 18th century French Revolution, Napoleon, with his customary cynicism, summed this up:
'What is it that makes the poor man take it for granted that on my table at each meal there is enough to sustain a family for a week? It is religion which says to him that in another life I shall be his equal, indeed that he has a better chance of being happy there than I have.'
But Christianity also remained capable of not simply being a solace for the poor and oppressed, but of becoming the vehicle for protest, rebellion and revolt against that order. Throughout feudal society a whole series of heretical religious movements erupted, based on differing interpretations of the Bible from that preached by the church elite. These movements drew in one form or another on the echo of the Jesus of the Jewish revolt in the gospels to justify social rebellion and revolt.
So the religious teaching of the priest John Ball was a central element of the 14th century Peasants' Revolt in England. You don't need much imagination to see the social implications of Ball's famous sermon, 'When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?'
A similar picture is true of the countless other heresies, from the Waldenses to the Hussites and most clearly of all in the great 16th century Anabaptist revolt in Germany and Holland. Social rebellions lay behind the doctrinal arguments on which they focused. Anyone who has seen the film The Name of the Rose will have a flavour of how often obscure disputes about religious matters were at root vehicles for bitter class struggle.
The church and feudal rulers responded to all the heresies which pointed to social rebellion brutally. With the aid of the infamous Inquisition hundreds of thousands of people were killed, tortured and burned for daring to challenge the social and religious order.
Religion was not simply the vehicle for rebellions by those at the bottom of society. It also became the vehicle for the bourgeoisie in the early part of their fight to overthrown the feudal order, through the Reformation and the birth of Protestantism. It was, for example, this new Christianity, in the particular form of Calvinism, which was the ideological backbone of Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans who led the 17th century English Revolution.
This multi-faceted role which religion has played throughout history remains true today.
Christianity has remained the ideological justification of those at the top of society, and some of the worst examples of such rulers at that. In this century we have seen the dictators Franco in Spain and Salazar in Portugal justify fascism in the name of Christianity. In the US we have seen Ronald Reagan and right wing Christian fundamentalists, and the rulers of apartheid South Africa justified their rule through Christianity.
But for millions of the poor and oppressed, Christianity, like other religions, has continued to provide a solace amid the real suffering they endure. And it can still also be the vehicle for protest and rebellion against that suffering. The liberation theology movement in Latin America with its worker priests and revolutionary fighters is one clear example. In the US Christianity has been the vehicle for the black protest against racism.
Socialists reject all religious ideas. We are materialists and therefore atheists and will always and everywhere argue for this basic stance. But that does not mean treating all religious ideas and movements equally. Karl Marx is often taken out of context saying that religion is 'the opium of the people'. That, to be sure, can be one of its roles. But what Marx actually said gives a far better picture of the complex nature of religion in class society.
Religion is, he wrote, 'an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of the heartless world and the soul of soulless circumstances. It is the opium of the people.'
Understanding this means socialists must always look to the social reality underneath the religious cloth. It means distinguishing above all between the religion of the oppressor and that of the oppressed. And when the oppressed fight back against their conditions under religious banners socialists stand with them in the fight.
We fight for a society in which religion eventually disappears. Part of that fight is arguing against religious ideas and for a materialist, and therefore atheist, view of the world. But religion will only disappear when the conditions which give rise to it are changed, when the real suffering, the oppression, the heartless world that Marx spoke of, are ended.