Did Civilization Start with Religious Belief?

I have been considering writing about this subject more extensively for a little while, but ended up writing about some other subjects and making a brief observation referring to the topic; but as Mike at the A-Unicornist took it upon himself to write a lengthy post about my little blurb I felt inclined to finish the more expansive post; more on his response in a bit.

What inspired the previous post were a couple of articles written recently about the pervasiveness of religious inclinations in human experience. The first bit was an article in National Geographic about Göbekli Tepe, one of the oldest known religious temples dated at 11,600 years old. It is fundamentally altering assumptions about what motivated the organization of the first human societies:

Anthropologists have assumed that organized religion began as a way of salving the tensions that inevitably arose when hunter-gatherers settled down, became farmers, and developed large societies. Compared to a nomadic band, the society of a village had longer term, more complex aims—storing grain and maintaining permanent homes. Villages would be more likely to accomplish those aims if their members were committed to the collective enterprise. Though primitive religious practices—burying the dead, creating cave art and figurines—had emerged tens of thousands of years earlier, organized religion arose, in this view, only when a common vision of a celestial order was needed to bind together these big, new, fragile groups of humankind. It could also have helped justify the social hierarchy that emerged in a more complex society: Those who rose to power were seen as having a special connection with the gods. Communities of the faithful, united in a common view of the world and their place in it, were more cohesive than ordinary clumps of quarreling people.

Göbekli Tepe, to Schmidt’s way of thinking, suggests a reversal of that scenario: The construction of a massive temple by a group of foragers is evidence that organized religion could have come before the rise of agriculture and other aspects of civilization. It suggests that the human impulse to gather for sacred rituals arose as humans shifted from seeing themselves as part of the natural world to seeking mastery over it. When foragers began settling down in villages, they unavoidably created a divide between the human realm—a fixed huddle of homes with hundreds of inhabitants—and the dangerous land beyond the campfire, populated by lethal beasts.

I have also discussed elsewhere how religious impulses were fundamental to the origin of art – a fact only realized when science divested itself of traditional notions of ‘primitive’ man. And I have recently detailed the essential role the Church played in the development of science. Most of these findings are relatively uncontroversial – they don’t in and of themselves prove the existence of God, but they do give lie to the notion that religious belief is inherently dangerous or antagonistic to intellectual development. Not only is not antagonistic, it now appears fundamental to human flourishing and the development of civilization.

In many ways such a findings aren’t surprising if one understands humanity as fundamentally spiritual organism. Science has speculated for centuries about what distinguishes humans from animals. They have proffered reason, our tool making ability, our communication skills or our societal organization. Eventually of these aspects are found elsewhere in nature and our uniqueness in these respects turns out only to be a matter of degree. In the end our primary distinction is our devotion to the sacred, our comprehension of the transcendent.

Indeed, recent research indicates our religious inclinations are a universally natural and instinctive part of who we are as creatures. It takes considerable effort and training to deny this fundamental aspect of human nature – and numerous efforts to eradicate it have failed miserably.  Religious belief thrives today as it never has. Rather than being a virus of the human mind, our minds appear to be unwaveringly spiritual, and we crave spiritual knowledge and fulfillment.

Mike responds to this by listing a hodgepodge of assertions some which are odd, some which are clearly wrong. I am only going to mention two, because I think that is sufficient to demonstrate he really didn’t think it through too much. One of the points he makes regarding art music and poetry is this:

I’m going to leave poetry out, for the simple reason that poetry requires language, and we’re the only animal that has it (it’s worth noting, though, that the oldest known poem was a love story that had little to do with religious beliefs)

The article Mike links to here is about the Epic of Gilgamesh which is indeed one of the oldest poems. In fact it’s among our oldest literature. But to say it “little to do with religious beliefs” is to put it politely, extremely ignorant. The main character of Epic of Gilgamesh is two-thirds God, and one third man. His companion Enkidu is created by the gods to keep him from oppressing the citizens he rules over. Throughout the tale Giglamesh wrestles with various gods and goddesses seeking eternal truth in the netherworld and bringing back secret knowledge to the world. Saying it has little to do with religious beliefs is like saying the Catholic catechism has little to do with religious beliefs. It is essentially and completely a religious document, as are almost all early forms of literature and poetry.

As an aside I have to say this is something that has annoyed me with my interaction with New Atheists – they frequently have little knowledge of history or culture outside a narrow band of learning they cling to that they think re-enforces their belief systems. It’s as if history began at the Enlightenment. Also, the ‘science-is-the-only-reliable-form-of-knowledge’ thinking forces one to rely on immediate findings rather than the accumulated and proven knowledge of history. So that Mike would not see the obvious religious nature of this literature is no surprise.

And again when he touches on the origin of marriage, he doesn’t seem to know how to approach it:

Let’s first define what marriage is. Because if we’re talking about monogamous marriages, that’s a relatively narrow tradition. From Sex: A Man’s Guide, published by Men’s Health:

Zoologist Desmond Morris argued in his 1967 book The Naked Ape that the whole point of human sexuality was “to strengthen the pair-bond and maintain the family unit.” But more recently, reports from the scientific front haven’t been quite so encouraging. It turns out that lots of birds fool around (at least 40 percent of indigo buntings get a little on the side, researchers report). And anthropologists have found that nearly 1,000 of the 1,154 past and present human societies ever studied have allowed men to have more than one wife.

It’s well known that polygamy was sanctioned and practiced extensively in the Old Testament, and it’s still practiced today by a few religious sects. So the tradition of monogamous marriage, in which we have a romantic ideal of one man and one wife, is more rare and more recent addition – the result of which is an impressively high incidence of infidelity .

It seems that while we do, as Desmond Morris argued in The Naked Ape, have a tendency to favor strong pair-bonding which may manifest in monogamous relationships, we’re not very good at actually being with one partner for our entire lives. One of the important implications of sociobiology is that sociocultural norms don’t stick if we’re not hard-wired for them. So it seems that we’re hard-wired enough for pair-bonding to make monogamous marriages work some of the time, but we’re also driven by our genes so strongly that we find it difficult to consistently adhere to such a stringent sociocultural norm and if the pair-bond in a monogamous marriage is weakened, it’s a safe bet we’ll find another pair-bond outside of it.

It’s important to note here that Mike never actually ‘defines’ marriage. In fact, if we accept his view of it, marriage plays almost no part legitimate part in human society; we are apparently too inclined as a species to be promiscuous. But such a view isn’t surprising if one is getting one’s information from Men’s Health quoting Desmond Morris. It always fascinates me that atheists, who are constantly claiming to be purveyors of rigorous scientific thinking, will accept almost any source of information providing it supports their beliefs. To wit, The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris was a pop anthropology book consisting of a series of vignettes that imagines how various sexual characteristics developed in primitive humans. It was originally serialized in the tabloid the Daily Mirror and later turned into a docu-drama style movie. I am old enough to remember it well – and how popular it was with the free love crowd. What it is not is a serious scientific treatment on the subject of human sexuality if one believes serious science consists of rigorous research, peer review and repeatable experimentation.

The fact is marriage is as old as human society. And while historically marriage is always essentially a relationship between a man and women for the purpose of forming a family, its forms are invariably tied up with the belief systems of the society – and as we have seen at the beginning of this post, human societies appear to have begun with religious beliefs. Animals don’t ‘get married’ because there are no sets of externally defined rules governing their relationships. Only humans understand their relationships to be ordained by a transcendent order – and this is what distinguishes marriage from the mere ‘pair-bonding’ Mike wants to reduce it to.

So Mike’s response to my brief observation yesterday doesn’t seem to be very well thought out, and there is not much there to contradict the history and research I have noted above.

Advertisements

14 Responses to Did Civilization Start with Religious Belief?

  1. Dan Trabue says:

    Along these lines, I might add that it was religious folk who were amongst the leaders in developing religious liberty – even for non-theists. I’m no historian, but it’s my understanding that the anabaptists, among others, were some of the first who gave reason for and support to religious liberty….

    When it was introduced by the Anabaptists in the 15th and 16th centuries, religious freedom independent of the state was unthinkable to both clerical and governmental leaders. Religious liberty was equated with anarchy; Kropotkin traces the birth of anarchist thought in Europe to these early Anabaptist communities.

    For what it’s worth…

  2. Dan Trabue says:

    Sorry, that post was from a wikipedia “Anabaptist” entry. Sorry for being lazy, there are other, better sources out there, that was just the easy one…

  3. jackhudson says:

    I think a lot of the liberties we enjoy now, particularly the ones that are based on freedom of conscience (speech, press, association, worship) are rooted in the theologies of groups that sprung from the Reformation. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. The Judge says:

    A very interesting post. On Gilgamesh, while it’s obviously a text with religious implications, I think what is most interesting about it is that it propounds a world-view very much similar to that of certain existential and atheistic ones. It certainly has little in common with theisms of the afterlife. The core message, that eternal life is impossible for the human condition and that quests to recover the ‘flower of youth’ will end up failing (but will still be worth the effort), reminded me very much of Albert Camus. It resonates with both L’Etranger and the Sysiphus (sp?) essay.

    This is a message that we find in numerous primary epics. The Iliad and Beowulf are both about the question of life’s meaning in the prospect of death. I’d argue that the Old Testament is closer to this view as well, as opposed to promoting the existence of an after-life. The very ancients seemed to believe in the same as the very moderns (sic) – that there’s nothing after death.

    On the title of your post, by the way, be wary of making such simple connections between complex topics like civilisation, religion and the inception of both. As I mentioned in the past, while your writing is always very interesting (and this post is no exception), the most unconvincing aspect in my view is this insistence on a linear reading of history (usually one which favours your biases). While imposing an order on it is always very comforting, sometimes history really does work according to chaos.

  5. @Jack

    Feel free to correct me if I am wrong, but I think you are overlooking one very important fact with regard to your argument.

    Religion wouldn’t have come about without language.

    On the other hand, music and art exist in the animal kingdom. Bonobos and chimps for example have been known to make primitive song, whales sing to each other, often repeating the same tones again and again to form a rhythmical pattern, and certain birds will build elaborate artistic structures to attract a mate.

    It is wrong to claim therefore only these things can derive from religion. At the most, we could say religion is a major contributing influence in the creation of such things as music and art.

    To say societies revolve around religion is more accurate than to claim religion is the cause for societies, let alone all of civilization.

  6. One small criticism. Marriage wasn’t initially intended for creating families but for sustaining the household, hence the procurment of chattle, arranged marriages, and bargains struck and paid for in the form of dowries.

    On a related note, two of my good friends married Chinese women and they were each required to pay dowries to the Chinese parents. Not for the sake of starting a family, because they’ll never see that money again, but to support the already established household.

    That’s the traditional role which marriage played in society. And of course animals don’t have marriage because they have no concept of money and bartering, or the economic savvy to understand why these things would be a political necessity in early societies. That said, however, as you are probably aware many animals exhibit monogamous behavior, chosing only one life partner. Most animals do not though, Primates being among the most promiscuous of animal species. Most of the time, in the Primate Kingdom, rape = marriage.

  7. Nate says:

    Beer started civilization.

  8. jackhudson says:

    On the title of your post, by the way, be wary of making such simple connections between complex topics like civilisation, religion and the inception of both. As I mentioned in the past, while your writing is always very interesting (and this post is no exception), the most unconvincing aspect in my view is this insistence on a linear reading of history (usually one which favours your biases). While imposing an order on it is always very comforting, sometimes history really does work according to chaos.

    I am glad you find it interesting Judge that means a lot to me. I agree that it is a simplistic description of history. Part of that is the medium – it is rather difficult to do a complete expository treatment of history in a blog post. Nonetheless, I think it is sufficient to convey an important point – religious belief is an essential aspect of who humans are, and how we acquired culture and civilization. We aren’t not rational creatures who have been deluded into being religious through a viral meme, we are inherently spiritual creatures whom occasionally employ reason to reject our religious nature.

  9. jackhudson says:

    Feel free to correct me if I am wrong, but I think you are overlooking one very important fact with regard to your argument.

    Religion wouldn’t have come about without language.

    I am not sure how you are parsing this. The earliest symbolic communications by human appears in the form of art, and that art is notably religious. I am not sure the two are all that separate.

    On the other hand, music and art exist in the animal kingdom. Bonobos and chimps for example have been known to make primitive song, whales sing to each other, often repeating the same tones again and again to form a rhythmical pattern, and certain birds will build elaborate artistic structures to attract a mate.

    I have to admit I am skeptical of such interpretations, and notably you include no studies here. One of the top researchers in the field of animal cognition, Mark Hauser (who studied tamarins) has been found guilty of scientific misconduct. Other supposed ape language experiments have been criticized for their interpretations and methodologies. The fact is, it is all too easy to personify animals. It is also difficult to objectively assess such findings – and like many studies, atheists are often forgiving of ‘science’ they suppose supports their worldview. Now obviously songs or music exist amongst animals (as do forms of communication) but the biggest difference is that animals don’t define, identify, and consider their various forms of communication.

    It is wrong to claim therefore only these things can derive from religion. At the most, we could say religion is a major contributing influence in the creation of such things as music and art.

    I would say it is essential, and I see no evidence that these aspects of culture would have thrived in a non-religious culture. I think secularism diminishes these aspects of what make us humans.

    To say societies revolve around religion is more accurate than to claim religion is the cause for societies, let alone all of civilization.

    I think you are parsing it in a way that doesn’t really change my contention.

    One small criticism. Marriage wasn’t initially intended for creating families but for sustaining the household, hence the procurment of chattle, arranged marriages, and bargains struck and paid for in the form of dowries.

    While I think this is a simplistic view, it doesn’t seem to change anything as ‘sustaining a household’ helps to establish a family. And obviously the person paying the dowry is interested in obtaining a wife for a reason – generally to have children.

    On a related note, two of my good friends married Chinese women and they were each required to pay dowries to the Chinese parents. Not for the sake of starting a family, because they’ll never see that money again, but to support the already established household.

    Your friends paid a dowry merely to sustain the wives family’s households? They had no interest in starting families with the women they married?

    That’s the traditional role which marriage played in society. And of course animals don’t have marriage because they have no concept of money and bartering, or the economic savvy to understand why these things would be a political necessity in early societies.

    While there have been many societies that paid dowries of some sort or another, you seem to completely be missing the reason men and their families were will willing to pay dowries – because they valued a potential partner so within marriage they could establish a family.
    And incidentally, a proper understanding of the history of a dowry shows that it existed in part to help the newly established marriage – from the Wiki article:

    The purpose of a dowry was to provide “seed money” or property for the establishment of a new household, to help a husband feed and protect his family, and to give the wife and children some support if he were to die] A husband thus had certain property rights in his wife’s dowry. In addition, the wife might bring to the marriage property of her own, which was not included in the dowry and which was, as a result, hers alone. This property was “beyond the dowry” (Greek: parapherna, the root of paraphernalia) and was known as paraphernal property or extra-dotal property.

    Even in the oldest available records, such as the Code of Hammurabi, the dowry is described as an already-existing custom. Regulations surrounding the custom include: the wife being entitled to her dowry at her husband’s death as part of her dower, her dowry being inheritable only by her own children, not by her husband’s children by other women, and a woman not being entitled to a (subsequent) inheritance if her father had provided her dowry in marriage. If a woman died without sons, her husband had to refund the dowry but could deduct the value of the bride price; the dowry would normally have been the larger of the sums.

    That said, however, as you are probably aware many animals exhibit monogamous behavior, chosing only one life partner. Most animals do not though, Primates being among the most promiscuous of animal species. Most of the time, in the Primate Kingdom, rape = marriage.

    I have to admit Tristan this is one of the most bizarre claims I have heard made. Obviously both rape and marriage are created and defined within human cultures. ‘Rape’ is generally considered an illicit and immoral act by the only beings with the capacity to comprehend moral actions – humans. To describe animal behavior as both rape and the subsequent relationship as marriage is to exemplify the worst sort of anthropomorphism.

  10. Tristan Vick says:

    On Primate Promiscuity, here is the clip I was thinking of:

    You can find the full lecture here:

    http://fora.tv/2011/02/22/Glenn_Wilson_Sex_Wars

  11. Tristan Vick says:

    @Jack

    Also, the language center of the brain is connected with tool making and motor functions.

    The belief center of the brain is also where emotions are generated.

    The visual cortex is a series of neurons, the largest of the brain.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visual_system

    Although we’ve not been able to witness our brain’s development, we can make guesses as to the series of evolutionary steps which would be needed to generate symbols.

    Being the larger part of the neuro-network, it is safe to assume that images, including symbol recognition, grew alongside the motor cortex and the somatosensory cortex. Yet these 3 brain cortexes exist in all animals. And other animals with large visual cortexes can recognize and implement symbols.

    Apes, Seal, Elephants, etc. Science Now even did a series on a Seal that could solve complex logic problems equivalent of a human 4 year old child. Their symbol recognition is that advanced.

    What I don’t see is how you can say the symbols were generated specifically for religious purposes. Actually, I think the symbols were generated as a biproduct of language, as a way to better express things like “spear” or “hammer” or “food” or “danger” and so on.

    Religion probably evolved after the symbolism created a library of functional images, such as logograms. It makes sense to me that phomemes and ideograms would be utilized to link more complex ideas after a basic “dictionary” of symbols was in place.

    Religious symbols would probably only fall into a sub-category of basic language units. Such as God. Death. Spirit.

    As language developed, religious concepts would get fleshed out in the broader “dictionary” of language symbols.

    I haven’t studied this much. I took a few semesters of linguistics, and much of my English theory courses involved language theory, so I have a little bit of knowledge here, although I’m far from expert on any of this.

    It just seems to me, however, that religious symbols couldn’t have predated language, and that because symbol generation is linked to our visual cortex and how we process information, we can deduce language development predates symbol usage.

    Therefore, religion could only come about through our ability to express religious “ideas” and concepts through the primitive data-base of our brain’s early symbol “library.”

    That’s what I meant when I stated religion couldn’t have developed without language.

  12. jackhudson says:

    I don’t doubt that animals can communicate or even recognize and respond to symbols – indeed I am sure many can, but there is no evidence that this in and of itself leads to civilization.

    In fact, I would say the fact that animals can do as much, and yet don’t have civilizations, is evidence that something more is neccesary – and I think that ‘something more’ is exactly what the evidence shows it is – religious belief.

  13. Mike D says:

    Jack, you’re just shifting the goalpost. Your original post was a statement (which I quoted on the blog) that were it not for religion, we would not have love, marriage, poetry, art, music, and science – which itself was taken from a Richard Dawkins quote on one of my previous posts. I demonstrated this to be an unfounded claim in every respect, and you’re not offering any direct counter arguments here at all. Instead, you’re just shifting the goalpost and saying that religion was central to civilization, which is obviously a completely different claim but also one in which you only provide correlative evidence. Worse, you’re being duplicitous when you lead with “Mike responds…” as though to frame the discussion as though I had been responding to the content in this post.

    You’re also putting words in my mouth regarding marriage. Your claim was that religion gave us marriage, to which I posed the query: what, precisely, do you mean when you say “marriage”? One man marrying dozens of women? Because that’s the way marriage is practiced in the majority of cultures. One woman to many men? It’s less common, but it’s out there. One man to one woman? It’s not as common, but with half of marriages failing and as high as 60% of marriages experiencing infidelity, it’s not the rock-solid institution you’re romanticizing. Animals don’t get married because they’re not intelligent enough to comprehend complex rituals with abstract symbolism. But several species of non-human primates still display an affinity for pair-bonding, which is exactly what marriage is when you look past the rituals – so it’s absurd to suggest that the rituals are a prerequisite for the pair-bonding.

    It always fascinates me that atheists, who are constantly claiming to be purveyors of rigorous scientific thinking, will accept almost any source of information providing it supports their beliefs.

    This was the only quote so contentious I felt it was worth a direct reply. Firstly, it’s a bald assertion mired in hypocrisy – let’s not forget Gallup data showing that some 40% of Americans are young-earth creationists (source). Secondly, in the leading paragraph, you commit the genetic fallacy: a claim may be true or false regardless of its source. The Men’s Health reference to anthropological data is the same as in Wikipedia here. The Naked Ape was based on the best knowledge of primatology and social psychology available at the time (or at least Desmond Morris’ understanding thereof), some of which is antiquated; but the fact that it was intended for the masses (just like, say, A Brief History of Time) does not render it unreliable. But regardless, the quote was saying that Desmond Morris, who was arguing for a biological basis for monogamy, has been shown to have been wrong: humans, even the ones who get into socially monogamous marriages, usually end up having more than one partner.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: