Class Warfare Blog

May 3, 2018

First Civilizations—Religion

Filed under: Entertainment,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 11:56 am
Tags: , , , ,

PBS is airing two new series, one called “Civilizations (BBC created)” and the other “First Civilizations (PBS & BBC created).” I saw fragments of both and programmed my DVR to record episodes. Last night I started viewing an episode of “First Civilizations” with the episode title of “Religion.”  I settled in with a bucket of popcorn looking to become enlightened … which lasted all of ten minutes. I will finish the episode, I guess, but here is some of what I saw in just the first ten minutes.

In the intro they said “When people share beliefs they are more likely to be cohesive … which allows a civilization to form.” This is basically true but is said in such a passive way. It could have been put ‘When people are forced to believe the same things, they are more likely to be able to be controlled … which allows a civilization to form.” Their verbiage makes it sound as if people spontaneously got together and said “Hey, gang let’s share beliefs so we can make a civilization.”

Then they ask a rhetorical question, a rather good one: Religion is the glue that binds us together (they slipped in “religion” to take the place of “shared beliefs”) … but how did people come to this conclusion? Again, this is on the right track but it makes it sound as if “the people,” as in “We, the people, …” were the actors, the deciders here. I think not. I think people are told what to believe and are usually threatened with negative consequences if they do not.

They began their answer to that rhetorical question above with the claim that by and large we were animists for the vast bulk of our existence, that gods and spirits were all around us. This was short but, I think, fairly accurate. They went on to say, “Switching to herding changed the viewpoints of animists. They started building sacred spaces. (Their example is rock jumble in Egypt that predates Stonehenge by a couple of millennia.) By building them, they were saying that the gods were to worshipped in these spaces and only there. They went on to point out that a number of these rocks weighed over one ton, so cooperation was needed to move them into place. They concluded that the stones must have some spiritual significance (emphasis added).

Click. (That’s me changing channels.)

There are more than a few problems with their claims. For one, if there were gods or spirits everywhere, how would anyone be convinced that they could only be accessed in one place? That the stones were moved into place apparently has been established and the conclusion that cooperation of a lot of people was required is valid, but ask yourself, what reason would people have to drop the productive labors they were engaged in (herding, cooking, weaving, etc.) and enter into nonproductive labors, strenuous labors (moving rocks)? The creators of this program are selling these actions as “spiritually motivated,” but in reality this doesn’t play out this way. All religions are based upon threats. That may sound harsh but bear me out. Imagine some shaman of one of the herding clans telling the herders they have to leave their flocks and move some really heavy stones around the desert. Most of the herders would respond with the equivalent of “WTF?” Would the shaman plead or just ask? Would the shaman argue how much better things would be with the rocks moved? I don’t think so, the shaman is in a position of power. To keep it he needs to exercise that power. He would threaten the tribe, as he always had, with the terrible things that would happen if they didn’t do his bidding. Since terrible things happen with some frequency, everyone has these things in mind and the idea of placating the gods for these terrible things has already been established. The shaman has “protected” the tribe in the past and “knows” which gods need to be placated. I am sure this is the variant of the “Elephant Repellent Spray” con. (There are no elephants around here! See, it works.)

So the tribe’s members are threatened with repercussions if they do not do as the shaman asks. The more “religious,” aka the more fearful, help coerce the less fearful and there you are. The labor was not spiritually inspired, it was coerced through threats of retaliation from gods or spirits.

Another problem is: where would the idea of a scared space come from? These are animists, the gods are all around. Lift up a rock and there is a god there. If the gods are everywhere, you do not need special places. (This same question could be asked of Christians who go to their churches to light a candle and pray, while at the same time arguing their god is everywhere and can hear their voice no matter where they are.)

What might motivate the creation of “sacred spaces?” Here is a counter narrative: when we became pastoral, which is not a sedentary lifestyle like agriculture creates, even so we become somewhat restricted in our movements. Like the skateboarding kid taking selfies, it seems as it he is stationary with the rest of the frame moving (because he is stationary relative to the camera), if you want to find a herder, look for the herd. The herd keeps moving (to find forage) but the herders are always next to the herd, so they are unlike hunter-gatherers in that their movement is more restricted. And herders follow patterns: there is winter pasturage and summer pasturage and the routes in between. They don’t migrate into unknown lands too much, who know what dangers might be there, so they make loops. By the time they get back to a spot they previously inhabited, the grass has had time to grow back, etc.

These pastoralists were not isolated from one another. Groups traded with one another, stole cattle, stole brides, arranged for marriages, etc. There were spaces where these groups met for such transactions and these spaces became “truce” spaces where it became bad juju to pull any fast ones. The shamans in each of these tribes would quickly learn in these trading spaces that they had “competitors” in the form of other shamans. Each shaman, not knowing what bullshit was being purveyed in the next group, was inclined to disparage the other shamans as weak or false. But what if another shaman’s message gets overheard by members of your tribe and they like it better than your spiel, what then? I’ll tell you: trouble in River City.

At some point, as a power ploy, one of the shamans has what he thinks is a good idea, the idea to create “a sacred space.” None of the others would have one of these. But he needs to get his tribe to build one. He does this and other tribes take notice. What is going on over there? Why are they dragging rocks around uselessly. When their own shamans can’t answer the question, the entrepreneurial shaman gains prestige.

Interestingly, the Stonehenge-esque site in Egypt shows a large number of small rings of stones scattered in a much larger circle. Could it have been that when the first tribe built their sacred space, the next tribe built a bigger one? (Sound familiar?) Soon you have a half dozen of the damned things surrounding the former “safe trading space.” The shamans, realizing that if they stay in conflict with one another there will be winners and losers, come to a tacit agreement over what the sacred spaces mean.

Now, I cannot “prove” my narrative, not do I want to try, but which narrative do you think is more likely? The one powered by spiritual feelings of “the people” or the one coerced by shamans seeking power? (In a court of law you can win a case not by proving the other side is wrong but simply by supplying a more likely narrative.)

These programs, at least the ones produced most recently by the BBC, have a reputation for sucking up to the religious. So, they start from “religion is a good thing” and “religions wouldn’t use fear and ambition to shape humanity’s future,” and well, I am sure you get it. So things are framed to cut religion a lot of slack, a whole lot of slack.

In reality, the religions we know are all based upon fear and threats. The Abrahamic religions have a god who says straight out that “I am a vengeful god.” Isaiah 45:7 in the King James Version reads, “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” This god is then described as being “all-good” and above criticism.

Believers are to be rewarded, nonbelievers get horribly punished. If you don’t want to be punished, you had better do as you are told. Threats. Many such threats permeate the Bible. (They do not care if you truly believe and will accept you if you fake it. If you think this is harsh just read the stories of people who lost their faith. They lose their faith but nobody notices, as long as they act as they always have. You will see this over and over. Then, if they don’t just run away, if they actually tell their fellow parishioners that they have lost their faith, the threats and punishments begin.)

The role of religion in the creation of civilization is simple. Religions are organized systems of coercion to get the masses to behave so that they serve the interests of the religious and secular elites. Mostly this is in the form of coerced labor. Coerced labor that accomplishes nothing of value to the religious (making circles of standing stones) is a display of power: “See what I can make them do? They placed all of these rocks in a circle at my behest.” It is no mystery that the first three civilizations in the “Cradle of Civilization” that is Mesopotamia, were ruled by religious elite cadres. So were Egypt’s. The earliest story ever recorded is that of Gilgamesh and Gilgamesh was originally ruled over by religious elites.

Fear and threats … coercion … what do you want to bet that these topics are not touched upon in the other 50 minutes of that program?

1 Comment »

  1. It’s really sad in many ways that certain individuals in the long ago had to exert their “power” and create “religion” and its accompanying rules and places of “worship.” As you mentioned, why do people need buildings and “leaders” (and candles) if their “god” is everywhere? But of course, we know the answer to that.

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by Nan — May 3, 2018 @ 12:16 pm | Reply

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