by Jonathan Clatworthy
from Signs of the Times No. 44 - Jan 2012

In the July 2010 issue of Signs of the Times I compared ancient Babylonian theology with the alternative found in some parts of the bible, notably Genesis 1.

Near eastern polytheism described reality in terms of a permanent threat of chaos, the need for continual sacrifices to appease the gods, expert priestly knowledge about which sacrifices to burn to which gods, and a social hierarchy with the priests at the top. Genesis, by denying the permanent threat of chaos, removes the sense of continual crisis, expects our problems to be solved politically and ethically (by obeying God's laws) rather than through technical expertise, and thereby gives reasons for a more democratic and egalitarian society.

I then argued that modern society today is riven by these contrasting accounts of how to solve society's problems, with the natural sciences more akin to Genesis while the dominant economic discourse of modern capitalism is more akin to the Babylonian.

The current international financial crisis reinforces the divergence. It is the Occupy protesters who, above all, demand an alternative to the current model. Their opponents reply that they do not have an alternative to offer. This article asks what kind of alternative would fit the Genesis account.

The most difficult part is understanding the distinctive nature of the current model. It has a specific history. I begin with Francis Bacon, a government minister in the early seventeenth century, who was concerned to improve the lot of humans. Western Europe had suffered a series of plagues for over 300 years, and he believed that if science and technology worked closely together they could find out how nature works and then devise methods for controlling it in the interests of human well-being. Why did he believe this possible? Because of the Fall. Before Adam and Eve ate the apple, the world was perfect. It should be possible to recreate that perfect state.

Soon afterwards Descartes developed a dualist account of reality. He believed there are two realms, a physical one consisting only of atoms obeying laws of nature and a spiritual one where the soul relates to God. Only humans relate to both worlds and he knew that he had failed to explain how our souls relate to our bodies. Many of his successors, ignoring this problem, have tended to think of their own thoughts as independent from what human bodies do.

Locke offered an account of how the mind can know things. He believed it uses two processes, logical deduction and gathering information through the senses. These two, he hoped, could provide complete and certain knowledge of the universe. Later it became clear that they cannot. His successors today usually accept that we learn in other ways as well. An alternative view, known as positivism, retained the theory and concluded that whatever cannot be established in Locke's two ways does not after all exist. One of the things that do not exist is Descartes' spiritual realm: the physical realm is all there is, God does not exist, and human minds are just products of our brains.

Putting these ideas together, we begin with a very negative evaluation of the environment and a very positive evaluation of the human mind: we, educated Europeans acting in concert, are capable of developing a complete and certain account of how nature works, and thereby changing the way things are so as to improve on nature. Later on we discover that these brilliantly capable minds of ours are nothing but products of that despised environment, evolving only to ensure the survival of one particular species. We have no business to presume it can achieve anything else.

Thus arose a contradiction between two accounts of the human mind. In practice theorists have applied one theory to their own minds and the other to the minds of the people whose lives they are trying to improve. The last three centuries have been full of hopes for progress as 'we' know what is best for 'people'. To give just one example, from Richard Dawkins in 1976:

We are survival machines - robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment.1

In the subsequent debate he commented on this passage:

That was no metaphor. I believe it is the literal truth, provided  certain key words are defined in the particular way favoured by  biologists.2

He responded to his deterministic conclusions with an appeal for change:

If you would extract a moral from this book, read it as a warning. Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals co-operate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have a chance to upset their  designs.3
We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth... We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism, something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world.4

Mary Midgley commented:

If we take seriously the view that we are nothing but gene-machines,  the advice given seems as futile as inviting a chess machine  to play leap-frog.5

Modern western literature is full of this contradiction. As long as we refuse to notice it, we can carry on maintaining the myth of humanity-as-a-whole pitted against the forces of nature (for the Babylonians, the gods; for us, the markets) and invest ever-increasing resources in the people running the system.

We have now reached the stage where two European countries - Greece and Italy - have had their prime ministers replaced by financiers, not through any democratic process but on the instructions of international financiers. There has even been serious discussion of a new treaty to regularise the process of depriving bailed-out Eurozone countries of democratically elected governments. These moves clearly represent the idea of humanity-as-a-whole, led by its experts, battling against the forces of nature, and equally clearly represent the interests of the people running the system at the of ordinary Greeks and Italians.

The authors of the Bible knew all about interest on debts increasing to the point at which they became unpayable. In those days the usual conclusion was to sell oneself into slavery, together with one's descendants. Instead, P incorporated the Deuteronomists' law that all debts should be cancelled every seven years, and added that every fifty years the land should be divided up equally. Such laws would thoroughly undermine the present economic system. However it has become clear that our current system needs something along these lines; without some corrective mechanism, inequalities of wealth just get greater and greater.

To cancel debts may seem unjust. This depends on our theory of justice. If, as the authors of the Bible claimed, the world's wealth has been designed for the well-being and flourishing of the living beings in it, then justice should consist of ensuring that everybody has their share.

  1. Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, p. ix.
  2. Dawkins, 'In defence of selfish genes', Philosophy, Vol 56, no. 218, pp. 572-573.
  3. The Selfish Gene, p. 3.
  4. The Selfish Gene, p. 215.
  5. Mary Midgley, 'Selfish Genes and Social Darwinism', Philosophy, Vol 58, no. 225, pp. 365-377.

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.