John Pickard’s book delves into the history of the three most important religions in the Western world, and this has profound political implications. If you think about it, religion dominates so many people’s lives from their birth to their death and yet, incredibly, so little is known about how religion, in particular Judaism, Christianity, and Islam really came about.

The resignation of Pope Benedict and the global furore around the selection of Pope Francis, demonstrated the grip the Catholic Church still commands in the minds of the masses in many areas of the world. Cain O’Mahoney looks at the origins of Catholicism in the Dark Ages, and how the ‘Universal’ Church - unconsciously - acted as the ‘subjective factor’ in the transition from the slave based society of the Roman Empire to feudalism in Western Europe.

The growth of Christianity during the first centuries of the modern era was phenomenal, especially among the lower orders. People who had nothing on earth and who lived in poverty were promised immense rewards in the after-life – provided they accepted their lot as slaves. This doctrine had an obvious appeal to the downtrodden masses, but it had equally obvious advantages for the ruling class. Eventually, the latter realized this and took the appropriate measures. But all these measures were in vain. The Church continued to thrive despite persecution – and possibly because of it.

In order to understand early Christianity it is necessary to place it in its historical context. In the second half of the second century BCE the Syrian Greek Seleucid Empire was being displaced by the rising imperial power of Rome. As a result, when Seleucus IV Pilopater ascended to the throne of the Seleucids, he not only had a much reduced empire, but was obliged to pay a heavy Roman tribute. The disasters of the Seleucid Empire had dire consequences for the Jewish people, leading to a chain of events that was later called the Abomination of Desolation.

Religion is not the motor-force of history but great social changes are expressed in changes in religion. In his book Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy Engels explained that great historical turning-points have been accompanied by religious changes in the case of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. The mass movements that were aroused by these beliefs in the early period of both Islam and Christianity shook the world.

As the twenty-first century progresses, there has been an increasing interest and not a small amount of debate on the role of religion in society and particularly on advances in secularisation. Richard Dawkins’ book , ‘The God Delusion,’ was a best-seller in the UK and novels like ‘The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ’ by Richard Pullman have touched raw nerves in Church hierarchies.

As the last Russian soldier crossed the Oxus River going back from Afghanistan into the Soviet Union in 1989, the Japanese-American philosopher at St. James’s University, Maryland and a CIA operative, Francis Fukuyama, came out with his iniquitous thesis on the “end of history”. However, although the Berlin Wall had fallen and the Soviet Union had collapsed, this thesis was soon refuted by history itself as the first Gulf War broke out in 1991.

The Pope’s visit to Britain comes in the midst of the most serious crisis of capitalism since the Second World War, with a growing mood of discontent among the workers. No doubt a little help for the British Establishment in times like these from the Almighty will always come in handy. The Pope is also hoping to boost the fortunes of the Church after it has been shaken by scandals in one country after another.

Many of us know that the origins of Christianity have nothing to do with silent nights or wise men. So what are its true origins? John Pickard looks at the reality of how this religion came about - from the standpoint of class forces and the material developments of society, rather than by the pious fictions fed from church pulpits.

The present Pope, Ratzinger or Benedict XVI as he has chosen to call himself, far from being a “transitional” Pope is not only following in the footsteps of John Paul II, he is putting his foot on the accelerator of Christian fundamentalism. While talking of reconciliation he promotes conflict, backs reactionary politicians of the Bush type and condemns anyone who wants to really change the material conditions of millions of poor and working class people.

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