There is no place for religion in scientific, materialist thinking. Religion is closely linked with idealism, the philosophical position that mind has primacy over matter, the laws of the universe being decided by the greatest mind conceivable — that of God, or the ‘absolute Idea’, or what have you. Gods, votive rituals and so on are invented by human beings, and are historical and social in origin. Nonetheless, supernatural beliefs have influenced art probably since its first flowering, so critics need to appreciate the ways in which religion and art interact.
We have already outlined the Marxist attitude to religion, and discussed religion in Neolithic art. Here we will take a look its role in the early civilisations. The subject is so huge that we must restrict ourselves to a few general observations.
Highly organised and ritualised religion, with complex deities, became a prominent part of human society from the time we had something to lose. As agriculturalists, our way of life depended upon rhythms and forces that were completely out of our control, and which could mean disaster for us. Every natural event was seen as an act of the gods. Through the notion that these gods could be appeased and worshipped to keep their goodwill, we sought to gain more control over our environment. When such supplication coincided with improvements in human conditions, religion was considered to be vindicated. When ineffective, it was taken as evidence that these were indeed unpredictable and unknowable beings.
Gordon Childe pointed out that successful civilisations had hit upon a way of life that worked — why should they change how they did things?
The success of simply equipped societies depends on everyone doing what has proved to be the right thing at the right time and in the proper way; it imposes a complete pattern of behaviour on all the community’s members. This pattern finds expression in social institutions and in traditional rules and prohibitions. It is sanctified by magico-religious beliefs and fears. Just as the practical acts of life are accompanied by appropriate rites and ceremonies, so mystical forces are supposed to watch over the traditional rules and avenge any transgression of them. The established economy is reinforced by an appropriate ideology.
Religion has usually, though by no means always, played a conservative role ever since. In Ludwig Feuerbach, Engels outlined the origins of religion from a different angle:
From the very early times when men, still completely ignorant of the structure of their own bodies, under the stimulus of dream apparitions came to believe that their thinking and sensation were not activities of their bodies, but of a distinct soul which inhabits the body and leaves it at death — from this time men have been driven to reflect about the relation between this soul and the outside world. If, upon death, it took leave of the body and lived on, there was no occasion to invent yet another distinct death for it. Thus arose the idea of immortality, which at that stage of development appeared not at all as a consolation but as a fate against which it was no use fighting, and often enough, as among the Greeks, as a positive misfortune. The quandary arising from the common universal ignorance of what to do with this soul, once its existence had been accepted, after the death of the body, and not religious desire for consolation, led in a general way to the tedious notion of personal immortality. In an exactly similar manner, the first gods arose through the personification of natural forces.
The early civilisations were polytheistic: they worshipped pantheons  of gods, often seeing one particular god as ruling over the others. These gods probably originated, as Engels observes, from a variety of spirits and supernatural forces, and evolved into a kind of extended family around which a system of core beliefs was developed. But in the sun worship of Akhenaten, or in the patron deities of city states in Mesopotamia, the roots of monotheism can already be seen. As Engels goes on:
And these gods in the further development of religions assumed more and more extramundane form, until finally by a process of abstraction, I might almost say of distillation, occurring naturally in the course of man’s intellectual development, out of the many more or less limited and mutually limiting gods there arose in the minds of men the idea of the one exclusive God of the monotheistic religions.
As we implied at the beginning, belief in deities only became a possibility when our species acquired an imagination. The fluid human consciousness, able to make associations and connections regardless of whether they were physically possible, allowed us to conceive of beings who lived forever — a combination of human sentience with the longevity of nature (to a human, landscape features like mountains or the ocean seem like they exist forever).
But of course, these beings don’t exist, and can therefore never be seen, heard or experienced. Human society compensates for this partly through works of art. The archaeologist Steven Mithen wrote:
Ideas about supernatural beings are unnatural in the sense that they conflict with our deeply evolved, domain-specific understanding of the world. As a consequence they are difficult to hold within our minds and to transmit to others... Matthew Day, a professor of religious studies, has recently written, ‘one of the bedevilling problems about dealing with gods is that... they are never really there’; hence we have difficulty in knowing not only how to communicate with them, but also how to think about them...
Modern humans compensate for this by the use of material symbols that provide ‘cognitive anchors’. Whether supernatural beings are made tangible in a representational manner, as we suppose is the case with the lion/man from Hohlenstein Stadel, or in abstract form as in the Christian cross, such material symbols function to help conceptualise and share the religious entities and ideas in which one believes.
Thus a community can share its ideas about religion by the use of music, figurines, ritual, special clothes, hymns, scriptures and so on that emphasise a common set of beliefs and group identity. Such forms provide religion with the concreteness which it cannot, of itself, possess. Without them, it is hard to see how religion could exist as a coherent structure or exercise any mass influence.
Religious beliefs provided a cosmological scheme to explain everything in the world, and played a huge role in shaping the ideologies upon which works of art were predicated. They influenced an immense number and variety of artistic forms: gorgeously designed and decorated temples; lavish tombs aimed at sending aristocrats safely to the afterlife; countless paintings, statues and other images on religious themes; stories and songs about the creation of the world and the deeds of the gods; and so on.
We can’t discuss every civilisation here, so let’s take a look at the Mesopotamian culture(s), and draw out some generalisations.
In Mesopotamia, a paradigm was established that was to persist for three millennia. The land was considered to be literally the property of the gods, and each city-state was not only dedicated to a deity but was thought to belong to that deity (Sippar to Shamash, Nineveh to Ishtar, etc). In George Roux’s words, “the mighty Assyrian monarchs whose empire extended from the Nile to the Caspian Sea were the humble servants of their god Assur just as the governers of Lagash who ruled over a few square miles of Sumer were those of their god Ningirsu.” Religious ideas permeated the whole of Mesopotamian society: in their daily routines, their social structure, and in their art. One of the most important pieces of Mesopotamian literature that has survived, the Babylonian Enuma Elish, is a creation myth, and the gods intervene into human affairs in the Epic of Gilgamesh just as they do in Homer.
We know a good deal about early Mesopotamian religious beliefs, thanks mostly to texts preserved in libraries at Nippur, Assur and Nineveh. Sumer had a pantheon of hundreds of deities, each assigned to a particular area and covering everything from the sun to ploughs. Since these deities were ‘never really there’, it was to human behaviour that the Sumerians looked for a model. Here is Roux again:
These gods, like the Greek gods, had the physical appearance and all the qualities and defects of human beings: they were highly intelligent but could run out of ideas; they were good in general, but also capable of evil thoughts and deeds; they were subject to love, hatred, anger, jealousy and all other human passions; they ate and drank and got drunk; they quarrelled and fought and suffered and were wounded and could even die — i.e. go and live in the Netherworld. In brief, they represented the best and worst of human nature on a superhuman scale.
We may generalise here and say that for this reason, religious art, despite the superhumanity of the deities involved, always has a human character. When we look at images of gods in friezes, sculptures, frescos and other forms, it is men and women we see before us. And these men and women live in something resembling the conditions of human society at the time. We are reminded here of Marx:
Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc... We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises.
Or, as he put it in his fourth Thesis on Feuerbach, “the earthly family is... the secret of the holy family”.
True, the Mesopotamian deities were not always represented in human form: Enlil appeared as a bull, Shamash as a sun, Inanna as an evening star.
Stela of Shamshi-Adad V from the Assyrian city of Nimrud, ca. 820 BCE. The king stands next to the symbols of his main gods; from left to right: Ishtar, Adad, Sin, Shamash and Ashur. Photo: nrares
But the briefest look at their behaviour makes their nature very clear, as in the episode from the Epic of Gilgamesh where the goddess Inanna tries to seduce the hero:
When Gilgamesh placed his crown on his head,
a princess Ishtar raised her eyes to the beauty of Gilgamesh.
‘Come along, Gilgamesh, be you my husband,
to me grant your lusciousness.
Be you my husband, and I will be your wife.’
Gilgamesh spurns her advances, citing the many cases of lovers she has taken and abandoned in the past:
See here now, I will recite the list of your lovers...
You loved the supremely mighty lion,
yet you dug for him seven and again seven pits.
You loved the stallion, famed in battle,
yet you ordained for him the whip, the goad, and the lash,
ordained for him to gallop for seven and seven hours,
ordained for him drinking from muddled waters,
you ordained far his mother Silili to wail continually.
You loved the Shepherd, the Master Herder,
who continually presented you with bread baked in embers,
and who daily slaughtered for you a kid.
Yet you struck him, and turned him into a wolf,
so his own shepherds now chase him
and his own dogs snap at his shins. 
The passage tells us nothing about the operations of the cosmos, but a great deal about the loves and lusts of humans and a particular (fearful and disapproving) attitude towards female sexuality.
Not only were the individual gods created in humanity’s image, with very human jealousies, needs, passions, etc, but religion echoed the social hierarchy of human class society. Some gods were more powerful than others. At the apex of the Sumerian pantheon was An, the ruler of the heavens — beneath him were Enlil, god of the air, and Enki, god of the earth and the waters. Beneath them were further deities such as the moon-god Nanna (Sin), the sun-god Utu (Shamash), the love goddess Inanna (Ishtar). Other deities were important only in their own towns, or represented the humble brick or pickaxe.
Image of the sun-god Shamash (right), before a king and his attendants. Stone tablet, 9th century BCE. Shamash appears much larger and in repose, emphasising his greater status. This is similar to how human kings are portrayed in relation to their subjects throughout Bronze Age art.
So religion was an expression, as well as a mainspring, of the ideologies of the early civilisations. These ideologies, as we’ve discussed, overwhelmingly promoted the interests of the ruling class. Divine support was a means of legitimising the inequalities in class society, and thus hugely important in explaining why religion was taken so seriously; Marx refers to priests as ‘the first form of ideologists’. The alliance between kings and priests is made clear by the many holy rituals that associate the nobility with religion. Kings of Ur participated in a ceremony on New Year’s Day in which they climbed the ziggurat to be symbolically married to Inanna, the goddess of fertility, and the Akkadian king Narâm-Sin declared himself a god, thus winning his home city the distinction of being the seat of a divine being. In Egypt, the Pharaoh was technically the highest priest of all, who delegated the necessary rituals to lower ranks.
This does not mean that religion may be reduced to a tool of ruling class oppression. Marx’s understanding was more complex. One of his key statements was made in the Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right:
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless circumstances.
Religion is the product of a human race alienated from itself, oppressed by its system of production. Marx referred to this as an ‘inverted world’, in which humans created gods in their own image and then worshipped them as all-powerful. Far more than a weapon wielded in a class war, it is “the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form... the fantastic realisation of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality.”
As John Raines pointed out, “for Marx the essence of religion is its voicing of ‘suffering’ — its crying out against the realities of exploitation and degradation.” For this reason alone it would be wrong to reject it out of hand — Raines cites the example of Black slaves in the Americas for whom religious songs were a collective expression of their search for dignity. Religion’s obvious failing — not being true — need not concern us from an aesthetic point of view, for reasons we will explore another time. Art is no less valuable for drawing inspiration from fictional deities instead of, say, realistic but equally fictional humans. Religion in ancient times was science, ethics, philosophy and law — our attempt to explain the unexplainable. It was therefore inseparable from art.
Religion is entwined with the cultural products of civilisation to the point that objects with no direct religious purpose must still be understood within the context of that society’s religions if its full meaning is to be explored. Take for example this work from Egypt:
Model of painted wood, ca. 2000 BCE. Photo: Gérard Ducher.
This model seems to be an entirely secular depiction of farmers herding cattle. Yet it was found, among other models, in the tomb of a noble called Meketre. Ancient Egyptian burials often included images of servants performing daily chores, soldiers marching, etc, so that the dead noble might continue to enjoy them in the afterlife. If it were not for religion, this model might never have been made at all.
Obviously no work of art can be reduced to its religious value alone. The Pyramids, for example, embody many meanings simultaneously — they are religious buildings aimed, we believe, at assisting the Pharaoh’s passage to the afterlife; they are the summation of Egyptian mathematics, engineering and construction skills; they are aesthetic creations of great beauty, along with the funerary objects put inside them; and they are massive affirmations of the power of the ruling class. But again: remove religion from this totality, and the Pyramids would simply not have been built.
 Herbert Jennings Rose, A Handbook of Greek Mythology (1928). This has been updated as The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology (2008).
 Childe, Man Makes Himself (1936).
 Engels, ‘Part 2: Materialism’ from Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886).
 This should not be equated with pantheism, a concept which includes ‘belief in many gods’ but also “the belief that God exists in and is the same as all things, animals and people within the universe” (Cambridge Dictionary).
 Steve Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals (2005).
 Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq (1964, rev. 1992).
 Marx and Engels, ‘Part 1 A: Idealism and Materialism’ from The German Ideology (1845).
 Tablet 6 of the Epic of Gilgamesh.
 Marx and Engels, op. cit.
 Marx, Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843).
 John Raines, Marx on Religion (2002).