Saturday, April 27, 2013

Bellah 3: The birth of god

When did god arrive? Turns out, that's not such a hard question.

One would think that the historical moment of our discovery of god as the eternal and creative being of the universe would be a little hard to pin down. In our hearts, we always knew he (she? it?) was there, pulling the strings, blowing the winds around, and separating the wheat from the chaff after death. Right?

But while primitive societies know of "powers" responsible for each of the mystifying aspects of their lives, they do not as a rule make of these powers a well-worked out hierarchical pantheon, let alone unify them into the kind of mind-blowing monotheism that became so popular in later societies. Robert Bellah, in his wonderful book "Religion in human evolution" devotes quite a bit of time to characterizing such non-systems:
"Aboriginal Australia has been cited, notably by Mercea Eliade, following Pater Schmidt, as an important case of Urmonotheismus, primeval monotheism, because of the 'High Gods', or 'Sky Gods' to be found there. But among the central desert peoples that I have focused on [because of their relatively low contact with missionaries and Western culture] there are no High Gods, indeed no gods at all. The Ancestral Beings, like the powerful beings of the Kalapalo, are not worshipped, but identified with in ritual enactment. It was the absence of gods, worship, and even prayer, that led early Western observers to declare that the Aborigines had no religion at all, thus missing entirely the rich web of belief and practice that in fact characterize Aboriginal life. So where are these High Gods, this primeval monotheism?"

After which Bellah launches into a discussion of how contact with the religious concepts of Westerners as well as the attendant existential catastrophes, prompted a kind of desperate millenialism, similar to the incredibly sad ghost dancing of Native Americans, which involved some worship, prophetic relationship with god, moral prescriptions, etc.

Turning to native American religions, specifically the Navajo, Bellah adds:
"Several writers have attempted to reconstruct the hunter-gatherer religion of the early Apacheans by looking for comparative material among the Northern Athabascans and the groups through whose territory the Southern Athabascans must have passed before reaching the Southwest [becoming the Navajo]. Luckert posits the idea of a 'prehuman flux' as a kind of baseline for hunter beliefs, not only in North America, but perhaps everywhere. By this term he points to a 'time' when all things were interchangeable; not only powerful beings, humans, animals, but insects, plants, and features of the natural environment such as mountains, were all 'alive', and could take the form of one another. Eventually some of the powerful beings shaped the earth and separated the 'peoples' (including animals, plants, mountains, and so on) into their present forms. However the primordial flux is not really in the past, but can be returned to through ritual and the trance states that accompany ritual."

Clearly the garden of Eden story is a faint flicker of this conception in the Judeo-Christian tradition, turned into a jeremiad of sin & misogyny, and then succeeded by countless other mythical developments. But native versions express an egalitarianism and direct participation- religious democracy, one might say- that reflects their cultural setting and practices.

But then agriculture appears, bringing the possibility of wealth accumulation, settlement and the impossibility of escape from the group, magnified levels of status, intensified warfare, and the state.

In a discussion of pre-contact Hawaii, with its transition from a kinship/tribal system to a primitive state system run by a king with so much power that human sacrifice was part of the menu, Bellah notes that this is where gods are (or more specifically, God is) born.

"If we think of Hawai'i, the distinction between the ali'i and the commoners is just such a clear class distinction. Another way of making the same point without focusing quite so centrally on class is to say that the key distinction is between the state as a secondary formation and the rest of society. That this is close to what Trigger means is clear when he writes, 'wealth tended to be derived from political power far more frequently than political power was derived from wealth.' So it is not class as defined in terms of relation to the means of production that is critical in these societies, but class as defined in relation to political power. 
Also important for Trigger is the point the kinship, although remaining significant in different ways for both the rulers and the ruled, no longer, as in tribal and chiefdom societies, is the 'basic principle governing social relations.' He adds one further point of great importance: 'Just as class has replaced real and metaphorical kinship as a basis for organizing society, so religious concepts replaced kinship as a medium for social and political discourse.' Of course, symbolic action and expression that can be called religious appear at every level of social organization, but something new on the religious realm appears in archaic societies: gods and the worship of gods. My reading of Trigger's study reinforces my sense that what makes archaic society different from its predecessors is a complex religio-political transformation that gives rise to two ideas that are essentially new in the world: kingship and divinity, in many ways two parts of a single whole."

In another section, he discusses this transition from tribal to state organization in more detail:

"I have referred to the despotic founders of early states, who came to power through blood and terror as they almost always did, as upstarts of the kind that tribal society usually managed to repress. As opposed to Girard's theory, it would seem that the first killing among culturally organized humans was not the killing of scapegoat, but the killing of an upstart who genuinely threatened to revive the despotism of the old primate alpha male. We have argued that hunter-gatherer egalitarianism is not the abandonment of dominance, but a new form of it, the dominance of all against each other. effective dominance, however, brings on not only submission but resentment, and a desire to resist dominance. That is why upstarts wishing to re-create despotism can be found in every society. We do not ned to go to sociobiology for an understanding of upstarts: modern philosophy has had more than a little to say about this human proclivity. Hobbes spoke of the 'desire to be foremost,' Hegel of the fundamental human dialectic of 'master and slave,' Nietzsche of the 'will to power.'
...
The warrior band, however, can turn out to be a self-defeating project if all it does is stimulate the creation of other warrior bands leading to an ever escalating increase in violence (a real possibility- the 'nightmare of history' of which James Joyce spoke). Chiefdoms are notoriously ephemeral, but early states are also quite fragile. It is only when a successful warrior can fashion a new form of authority, of legitimate hierarchy, that he can break the cycle of violence and hope for lasting rule, perhaps one to be inherited by offspring. But this involves a new relation between gods and humans, a new way of organizing society, one that finds a significant place for the disposition to nurture as well as the disposition to dominate. This is the task that archaic religion and societies have to complete if they are to be even briefly successful. In doing so they elaborate a vast hierarchical conception of the cosmos in which the divine, the natural, and the human are integrated."

and ...
"Both tribal and archaic religions are 'cosmological,' in that supernature, nature, and society were all fused into a single cosmos. The early state greatly extended the understanding of the cosmos in time and space, but, as Thorkild Jacobsen argued, the cosmos was still viewed as a state- the homology between sociopolitical reality and religious reality was unbroken. As we have seen the establishment of the early state and the beginning of archaic society destroyed the uneasy egalitarianism of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years of hominin evolution, but in so doing made possible much larger and more complex societies. A dramatic symbolism that combined dominance and nurturance produced a new sense of divine power combined with social power, enacted in entirely new forms of ritual, involving, centrally, sacrifice- even human sacrifice- as a concrete expression of radical status difference."

So religion appears to be the metaphorical and archetypal expression of the gestalt people find themselves in, projecting their society into their cosmos, rather than the reverse, let alone studying the cosmos on its own terms. If the society has an omnipowerful god, so does the religion. If the society is an egalitarian community of interdependent family and tribal units, so are the beings and gods of their imagination. Bellah also goes through the experience of Israel, where the whole Moses story was cooked up out of whole cloth, as a nostalgic reflection on the Davidic state, probably during exile in that other great state of Babylon / Assyria.

Does this give religious people pause? Probably not. Every religion posits as it first rule that it is correct, and if it recognizes antecedent forms and doctrines at all, poses as the final, correct, and inerrant culmination of a, let us say pseudo-scientific process of discovery / revelation by which its prophets gained the current dispensation.

But, not to put to fine a point on it, that view is precisely backward. It is social setting and ideology that calls forth the religious metaphor, however earnestly elaborated in vast scriptures and schools of theology. For all the standard religions, which use a corpus of myth to intimate a reality with which we are now far more familiar by scientific means, the whole story, including god, is logically, if not artistically, dead. The myth, as discussed in the last post, may remain a sagging sociological artifact, but its many claims to be "true" about "reality" in some critical way that endows its community and especially its priests with mystical knowledge, including powers of healing, historical insight, prophecy and salvation ... well, that couldn't be more absurd, beyond a bit of psychological acuity and placebo effect.

But it wasn't the pointy-headed attacks of the philologists, historians, and scientists that did it in. No, that was only part of a larger social retreat during the enlightenment from state-centered kingship and totalitarianism, towards a utilitarian, domesticated state, that slowly strangled the monotheistic god. Communism was a fascinating detour on this road, installing mundane despotism while denying its celestial equivalent- not a very successful experiment! It has been a long road from terrestrial democracy to democracy in the sky, but we are slowly getting there, whether through the pathetic watering-down of Christian dogma (goodbye hell!), or through the simple exodus of apathetic unbelievers.

And what does the future hold for religious ideology, now that totalitarian kingship is going out of style and with it, the monotheisms of totalitarian kingship? Tune in next week!


  • A few problems with Islam, when one loves too much. But then some help, too.
  • Outstanding interview with far-North anthropologist Jean Briggs.
  • Inequality increases relentlessly.
  • Economic growth is doomed- we have picked all the low-hanging fruit, at least until the robots take over. On the other hand, perhaps we should better tend to ecological catastrophe than worry about a few points of growth here or there.
  • Some serious problems with Obamacare.
  • Fraught identities of immigrants.
  • There is no tech worker shortage.
  • Reality as a religious identity.
  • Bitcoin- the perils of an inelastic currency.
  • The curious case of Japan, heading for resolution?
  • Economics quote of the week, from Paul Krugman:
"And this makes one wonder how much difference the intellectual collapse of the austerian position will actually make. To the extent that we have policy of the 1 percent, by the 1 percent, for the 1 percent, won’t we just see new justifications for the same old policies?"

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