So this is going to be the first of (I hope many) discussions/essays/bullshit posts with ThatFanficGuy. I'm making them public for a few reasons. One, because CardboardLamp probably doesn't want me shitting up his nice thread. Two, because Hubski is a great platform for discussion and personally, I find religion is something very worthwhile to discuss, when done respectfully. Thirdly, I hope by making this public, other people can contribute and help to keep bullshit in check.
I'd also like to say that I intend to keep these as more casual conversations that are academically (I use the term rather loosely of course, as I can't profess to having any academic qualifications) focused than spiritually focused, because there are many diverse religions out there and not all of them are in agreement, especially when it comes to metaphysics. Plus, when discussions on religion focus on metaphysics, sometimes they take weird turns. At the same time, I'm more speaking in general concepts than specifics, mostly because it's easier for me to talk about these things without having to come up with a bunch of hard details. However, if anyone at any time would like some specific examples, ask away. I'll be more than happy to dig some up for you. Please also, forgive my inability to write. I can only dread the kind of grade I'd expect from lil if I turned this in as a paper. In my defense though, these are more meant as starting off points for discussion than anything. So, luckily, there's no grade involved.
So with that, I'd like to reference this statement by ThatFanficGuy . . .
Gods - as opposed to mere spirits of things - exist in religion because human beings are flock animals, however unwilling we might be to admit both of those qualities. We like to be told what to do, to relinquish ourselves of responsibility, and god/gods is a perfect excuse for that - right alongside fate, destiny and other determenistic/oppressive concepts. Gods may start as spirits of things - spirit of the lake (or, later, of all lakes and, even later, of all visible outside water), for example - but grow in power with time if left unchecked (and most are).
Before we get into the brass and tacks of why religion was important for older civilizations, I think it's very important to point out that the idea that older civilizations were ignorant and superstitious is both misguided and unfair. With some exceptions due to changes in overall health and development, people in older civilizations were just as intellectually capable as we are today. The reason they're not as advanced as us is actually pretty straightforward. When you're building off of the accomplishments of the people that came before you, you have more to work with and you're able to progress further.
I'll make a brief list as a time line here. I wish I could take the time to graph things out to make a better visual impact, but let's be honest here. I'm a bit lazy.
The Development of Handtools – Around 3,500,000 BCE
The Development of Numbers – Arguably around 40-50,000 BCE
The Development of Agriculture – Around 11,000 BCE
The Development of Modern Math – Around 3,000 BCE
The Development of the Written Language – Around 3,000 BCE
I could list more examples such as the erection of ancient structures, the development of various types of tools such as the lever or the wheel and so on and so forth. The fact is though, these concepts that we take for granted today were absolutely revolutionary back then. Each one literally changed civilizations as we know it and after the development of each one, civilizations grew in leaps and bounds almost overnight. In the time line I've given, you can see how the gaps between major developments get smaller and smaller. After the development of writing and modern math, we really started to take off as a species. It's not that people in older civilizations were stupid, it's that they literally didn't have the tools because no one had invented them yet. So why do I think this concept is important? Because I think to truly appreciate where these people were coming from, we have to give them credit for being the best they could be with what they had.
Now, with that bullshit out of the way, onto religion.
So what is religion? Read the Wikipedia Article. See how long that is? See how involved that is? Damn. I'm not getting into all that shit in this single post. We'd be here forever. Without getting into the hows and whys of how religions are formed (because that's a specific area where I do not know much about) I would like to touch on a few points though about religion and what it has to offer and why it was vital for the survival of older civilizations.
For the most part, it all boils down to one main element, social cohesion. The world back then, especially pre-written record, isn't like the world we have today. Death was literally lurking around every corner in the form of predators, the natural elements, starvation, and other people. If people wanted to survive, they'd have to work together. Many elements of religions, no matter how or why they were formed, benefited older civilizations when it came to survival.
Myths - Let's get the big one out of the way. People point to religious myths and say that they're silly and superstitious. Stories about gods and demons, the supernatural and superstitious, are hard to take seriously today. Myths served many purposes actually. They were indeed often used to explain a lot of things about the world, though how many of them were held up as believed to be “true” and how many were just there as bedtime stories is hard to tell. Speaking of bedtime stories, like folktales and fables, they were also there to entertain, to allow communities to congregate and bond around an aspect of shared culture, developing and reinforcing relationships that were essential for cooperation and survival. Lastly, mythical stories were often used to pass along morals and virtues, to teach and reinforce the idea that good behavior can lead to great things and that mischievous behavior could lead to disaster. They were often used to embody the values that various cultures saw as important, values that when embraced, could aid in their survival.
The thing is though while myths themselves have died, they have been replaced by other things that still serve the same purpose. We have fictional stories about superheros and daring people to not only entertain us, but to motivate and inspire us to be bigger than we are. We have news articles that not only tell us about what is going on in the world, but also show us examples of human beings both at their very best and also at their very worse. Still today, with or without myths, we embrace forms of storytelling that both keeps us entertained while also reinforcing societal ideals.
Laws - It is pretty much a given that laws are absolutely essential for the survival of any civilization. Anyone that says otherwise is an idiot (or an anarchist, which is a special kind of idiocy on its own). So I'll keep this one brief. Most religions, both ancient and modern, have at least a few laws. Some of these laws are very obvious and very specific. Don't kill. Don't steal. In general, don't be a dick. Various other laws though, the more obscure and weird ones, tended to be more specific to a certain time, location, and set of circumstances. They would cover everything from what kind of livestock you could raise to how your family was structured. Then there were concepts that weren't necessarily laws, but traditions that fall under the categories of mores, folkways, and taboos. The point of all of these laws and traditions, back then just like today, was to maintain order and control. The better people got along, the better the chances of everyone living another year.
Group Identity - Religion was so much a part of people's lives that it was a part of their identity, both as individuals as well as communities. When people feel they are part of a group, that they have someplace they belong, they come to feel that it is in their best interest to behave in a manner that benefits the group as a whole. They do it for many reasons, because they love and care about the people in said groups, because social acceptance has a direct impact on their physical and emotional well being, and because they often feel pressured to behave in a way that prevents them from being ostracized. When people work together as a group, more often than not both the individuals of the group and the group as a whole benefits. At the same time, this group identity dictates how they behave towards other groups as a whole as well as individuals outside their group. More often than not, this behavior and this sense of “belonging” vs. “otherness” creates a layer of social protection. Once again, today we have the same concept being fulfilled by things other than religion. Nation States, unions and professional organizations, social fraternities, enthusiast clubs, on and on. Today, like thousands of years ago, the desire for the security that social acceptance brings is something we all desire.
Okay. Yeah. So, I'm done here, now. I'm never good at writing these things out, let alone wrapping things up. Thoughts and comments are welcome. I'm off to play Forza. I hope I didn't bore you.
Super interesting stuff. I second OftenBen and recommend making a tag.
I'd like to comment a bit on religion as an identity. Especially in the modern practice of religion, this is immensely important. I have no idea what factor it played waaaaay back in the day but today it is probably the main reason people join or continue to practice religion these days.
I just listened to a podcast about Jonestown and it's fresh in my mind so here's one example. Jonestown is often portrayed as a nutty group of mindless followers who went off to Guyana to follow a nutty dude to "drink the Kool Aid". In reality, the earliest followers of Jim Jones were people who felt connected to him and the message he was spreading. He started attracting followers in early 1950s - you had major issues with race and integration happening across the country. You also had the McCarthy Hearings going on. There was a massive amount of ostracism towards a whole number of different groups of people. Poverty, neglect, hatred, social uprising, etc. Every one of his followers were attracted to belonging to a group of people - and following a man - who they could relate to in those regards. They stuck around and almost 1000 people followed him to Guyana because of that and his promises of a better life.
The desire to belong and share your life with likeminded people is simply human nature. It comes in many forms - family, friends, religion, cults, internet forums, gangs, meetups, etc.
Religion is more than just belonging to a group and sharing with likeminded people but it is one thing that all religions have in common - from today to waaaay back in the earliest of religions.
One of the most interesting things about Jonestown was that the beliefs of this religion/cult weren't anything new or awe-inspiring. They literally just believed that socialism and traditional Christianity would solve their social problems. In terms of religion or believing in a higher power, it's barely there.
Even in the tapes of the congregants final moments, they don't speak of a God or gods. They speak about life and death and the turmoils of life and how death is easier than life. The only person they thank for their life, etc. is Jim Jones ("father") who has made himself out to be a prophet at this point.
Anyways, this is what makes religion so interesting to me. You know what religion is when you see it - when you hear about it - but there seem to be exceptions to every definition of religion that I've ever heard. Even the hardcore atheists - the ones who preach atheism and go to atheism meetups - seem to be more and more like a religion these days.