Saturday, May 11, 2013

Bellah 5: Equality before the rite

How egalitarian are humans, and do our rites express or create social structure?

In this last rumination on Robert Bellah's book, "Religion in human evolution", I consider some of the interactions between human social and religious structures.

One theme of Bellah's book is the varying levels of social hierarchy humans have experienced over history and pre-history. The primitive system he takes to be common before, say, 10,000 years ago, is strongly egalitarian, with small groups of families wandering the land with little wealth among them and an enforced equality of sexual and material resources- among males- based on a mutual conspiracy against power-grabbing upstarts as well as the option of relatively easy escape from overly oppressive leaders. Whether women shared in this equality is doubtful, despite the matriarchial cults and practices found in some instances. The gender difference in physical size alone indicates mild but longstanding biological and social inequality on this front.

Prior even to that, if one takes chimpanzees and most other mammals as our guide, societies were far more hierarchical, with an alpha male who more or less terrorized the rest of the group and took sexual possession of available females. So Bellah marvels a bit at the egalitarian turn that humans took in their evolutionary path, (cue bonobos as an analogous linage), and portrays the religious practices of prehistoric societies as commensurately egalitarian, centered on the land, ancestors, and vaguely healing powers of the mysterious cosmos, rather than on some totalitarian hierarchy projected out from their oppressed social situation. There were wars over women and land, but internally, the bands had little hierarchy and a great deal of democracy.
"When Boehm describes the essential basis of hunter-gatherer egalitarianism as the emergence of moral community, he is pointing to what mimetic and mythic culture made possible. In this moral community, powerful norms negatively sanctioned despotic behavior and protected the family. Although culture is the key resource in making such a reversal possible, Boehm insists that the reversal is not quite what it seems. Despotic tendencies in human beings are so deeply engrained that they cannot simply be renounced. We did not just suddenly go from nasty to nice. Reverse dominancy hierarchy is a form of dominance: egalitarianism is not simply the absence of despotism, it is the active and continuous elimination of potential despotism.
...
The tendency of upstarts to try to monopolize females and undermine the family is illustrated by the ancient Hebrew upstart David, who took Bathsheeba to wife and had her husband killed, although Machiavelli warned potential upstarts not to fool with other men's wives as that can spark instant rebellion. For an upstart to become a legitimate ruler there must be a reformulation of the understanding to moral community and new ritual forms to express it, so that despotism become legitimate authority and therefore bearable by the resentful many who must submit to it, a consideration that leads to the next step in my argument."

The loss of equality began when we discovered agriculture and the charms of a denser, rooted existence. Hierarchy became possible, even necessary, leading to enormous tension between long-ingrained ideals of freedom and the more or less oppressive structures of new/old-old state organization. A particularly remarkable example was in pre-contact Hawaii:
"Even in Hawai'i, which was an early state or very close to becoming one at the time of Western discovery, there was an annual alternation of rituals. During the period of the year belonging to Ku, the war god, rituals took place in walled temples where the general populace could not enter. There the priests undertook sacrifices, most significantly human sacrifices, to magnify the power and prestige of the paramount chiefs on the verge of becoming kings. But for the rest of the year, the Makahiki season, especially beginning with the New Year rituals, a very different kind of ritual prevailed. Significantly in this period the gates of the temples of Ku were closed. As we saw in Chapter 4, no one worked during the four days and nights that follow the hi'uwai rite. People of all classes devote themselves to feasting, mockery, obscene and satirical singing, and above all, to dancing. Laughter overcomes kapu [tabu], and sexual advances during the dancing cannot be refused. Valeri writes that 'these marvelously coordinated dances' realize 'a perfect fellowship' that reconstitutes society itself. All of this takes place in an atmosphere of 'hierarchical undifferentiation'. For a while at least, the old egalitarianism reappeared."

Our own time is no different, with the hierarchical structures of monarchy and Catholicism overtaken by that of business and "the market", prompting periodic revolts like the 60's and the Occupy movement. Half of our political system fetishizes "freedom" from government tyranny and worships CEOs, while the other half fetishizes "freedom" from economic reality, and worships politicians. Needless to say, this tension exists internally within each person and within each tradition, not just between alternate visions of man, society, and nature. Even in Islam, one has Sufism and Salafism.

Does religion merely express these tensions, or does it manage them or even resolve them? Looking back with the broadest view, Bellah seems to say that religion largely reflects the ambient social and cognitive structures. Perhaps in markedly imaginative and comforting ways, but it requires quite rare revolutionary activity and individual creativity to make it into something productive of new visions of reality. Whether the question makes sense at all, society being a complex, interacting system, the point is that religious conceptions can not be characterized as arriving from some extra-cosmic plane and reforming people at the point of a crucifix, as it were. Religions are always ways to address ambient problems, and express deep seated human questions (with artistic, psychologically-driven answers). Speaking again of his theories about the axial age, Bellah says:
"My point is that the power of Plato is his reform of the whole of what [Merlin] Donald called the cultural 'hybrid system', the system that includes mimetic, mythic, and theoretic in a new synthesis, but not the replacement of the mimetic and the mythic by the theoretic alone. Such a replacement is an experiment that no one central to the axial transition in any of the four cases undertook; that awaited the emergence of Western modernity in the seventeenth century."
One of the higher theoretic accomplishments of the current age is its casting off of thralldom to illegitimate hierarchies political and religious, in tandem with systematic enforcement of the ancient instinct of equality (using the language of "natural rights" and the like) by suppressing upstarts and despots, at least in the political sphere. So ironically,  I have hope that the future evolution of religion will likewise take us back to the past. The current axial questioning of traditional myths, hierarchies, and mythical history (termed by some "mythistory") means that the hierarchical functions with which traditional religions have been weighed down during the last few thousand years of despotism in various flavors are on their last legs, and giving way to spiritual as well as political egalitarianism. Even economic egalitarianism finds some basis in past religious & cultural practices, as periodic debt-cancellation was part of some ancient cultures' solutions to the creeping despotism of economic inequality. Occupy is only the beginning!


  • Boohoo for Mr. Tebow.
  • A sleazy payoff that sells out US workers.
  • Corruption, fraud, price rigging- OK for banks. Because their customers are dumb.
  • Start Trek enters the legal lexicon.
  • Science, religion, and Templeton.. not a happy mix.
  • Public services actually do serve the public ... we like libraries.
  • Economic quote of the week, from Keynes, via Krugman, on the many sources of aggregate demand:
"During the nineteenth century, the growth of population and of invention, the opening-up of new lands, the state of confidence and the frequency of war over the average of (say) each decade seem to have been sufficient, taken in conjunction with the propensity to consume, to establish a schedule of the marginal efficiency of capital which allowed a reasonably satisfactory average level of employment to be compatible with a rate of interest high enough to be psychologically acceptable to wealth-owners."

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