Related to Monday’s post but spun off for length reasons: my crazy theory about where religion comes from.
The near-universal existence of religion across cultures is surprising. Many people have speculated on what makes tribes around the world so fixated on believing in gods and propitiating them and so on. More recently people like Dawkins and Dennett have added their own contributions about parasitic memes and hyperactive agent-detection.
But I think a lot of these explanations are too focused on a modern idea of religion. I find ancient religion much more enlightening. I’m no historian, but from the little I know ancient religion seems to bleed seamlessly into every other aspect of the ancient way of life. For example, the Roman religion was a combination of mythology, larger-than-life history, patriotism, holidays, customs, superstitions, rules about the government, beliefs about virtue, and attempts to read the future off the livers of pigs. And aside from the pig livers, this seems entirely typical.
American culture (“American civil religion“) has a lot of these features too. It has mythology and larger-than-life history: George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, the wise and glorious Founding Fathers, Honest Abe single-handedly freeing the slaves with his trusty hatchet. It has patriotic symbols and art: the flag, the anthem, Uncle Sam. It has holidays: the Fourth of July, Martin Luther King Day, Washington’s birthday. It has customs: eat turkey on Thanksgiving, have a barbecue on Memorial Day, watch the Super Bowl. It has superstitions – the number 13, black cats – and ritual taboos – even “obvious” things like don’t go outside naked needs to be thought of as taboo considering some cultures do so without thinking. It has rules about the government – both the official laws you’ll find in the federal law code, but also deep-seated beliefs about the goodness of democracy or about how all men are created equal, and even customs that affect day-to-day governance like the President giving a State of the Union in January before both houses of Congress. There are beliefs about virtue: everyone should be free, we should try to be independent, we should work hard and pursue the American Dream.
People call the Jewish dietary code unusually strict, but it’s important to realize the strictness of modern American kashrut. Absolutely no eating insects – remember, even Jewish kashrut allows locusts! Precious few birds outside of chickens, ducks, turkeys, and geese – remember, even Jewish kashrut allows pigeons! No dogs, cats, rodents, or horses. No reptiles or amphibians, no matter how much the French try to convince us that frog legs are great. No eating clearly obvious animal heads with eyes and stuff (even though dozens of advanced cultures do so happily). No blood products (eg black pudding). Mixing milk and soda in the same glass would be absurd and disgusting. Any tuna made with a process that cannot 100% exclude dolphins is impure. And this isn’t even including all of the more modern health-oriented taboos like gluten, MSG, trans-fats, GM foods, et cetera.
If we were to ask the same New Guinea tribe to follow Jewish food taboos one week and American food taboos the next, I’m not sure they’d be able to identify one code as any stricter or weirder than the other. They might have some questions about the meat/milk thing, but maybe they’d also wonder why cheeseburgers are great for dinner but ridiculous for breakfast.
People get worked up over all of the weird purity laws and dress codes in Leviticus, but it’s important to realize how strict our own purity laws are. The ancient Jews would have found it ridiculous that men have to shave and bathe every day if they want to be considered for the best jobs. One must not piss anywhere other than a toilet; this is an abomination (but you would be shocked how many of the supposedly strait-laced Japanese will go in an alley if there’s no restroom nearby). I have been yelled at for going to work without a tie and for tying my tie in the wrong pattern; wearing sweatpants to work is right out. And once again, this gets even longer if you you let the more modern/rational rules onto the list – Leviticus has a lot to say about dwellings with fungus in them, but I recently learned to my distress that landlord/tenant law has a lot more.
Once again, if we made our poor New Guinea tribe follow Jewish purity laws one week and American purity laws the next, they would probably end up equally confused and angry both times.
So when we think of America as a perfectly natural secular culture, and Jews as following some kind of superstitious draconian law code, we’re just saying that our laws feel natural and obvious, but their laws feel like an outside imposition. And I think if a time-traveling King Solomon showed up at our doorstep, he would recognize American civil religion as a religion much quicker than he would recognize Christianity as one. Christianity would look like a barbaric mystery cult that had gotten too big for its britches; American civil religion would look like home.
Insofar as this isn’t obvious to schoolchildren learning about ancient religion, it’s because the only thing one ever hears about ancient religion is the crazy mythologies. But I think American culture shows lots of signs of trying to form a crazy mythology, only to be stymied by modernity-specific factors. We can’t have crazy mythologies because we have too many historians around to tell us exactly how things really happened. We can’t have crazy mythologies because we have too many scientists around to tell us where the rain and the lightning really come from. We can’t have crazy mythologies because we’re only two hundred-odd years old and these things take time. And most of all, we can’t have crazy mythologies because Christianity is already sitting around occupying that spot.
But if America was a thousand years old and had no science, no religion, and no writing, we would have crazy mythologies up the wazoo. George Washington would take on the stature of an Agamemnon; Benjamin Franklin would take on the status of a Daedalus. Instead of centaurs and satyrs and lamia we would have jackalopes and chupacabras and grey aliens. All those people who say with a nod and a wink that Paul Bunyan dug the Great Lakes as a drinking trough for his giant ox would say the same thing nodless and winkless. Superman would take on the stature of a Zeus, dwelling beside Obi-Wan Kenobi and Bigfoot atop Mt. Whitney, helping the virtuous and punishing the wicked. Some American Hesiod would put succumb to the systematizing impulse, put it all together and explain how George Washington was the son of Superman and ordered Paul Bunyan to dig Chesapeake Bay to entrap the British fleet, and nobody would be able to say they were wrong. I mean, we already have Superman vs. Batman as canon, why not go the extra distance?
So in one sense our best analogy for ancient religion is American civil religion coupled to the sort of national mythology we might have gotten if we’d been a little bit more historically confused. But in another sense ancient religion was actually much stronger than this. America has its own individual culture, but it also partakes of the entire Western liberal industrial secular worldview. An American might not feel culture shock if she moved to Britain; she probably would if she moved to New Guinea.
The ancient world had far less trade and transportation than our own and was far less homogenized. If you want to get into the shoes of an ancient contemplating his religion, imagine you’re an American in a world where even your closest neighboring countries are as different from you as New Guinea hill tribes, or Afghan chiefdoms, or Chinese party cadres. In a world like this, your identity as an American would be very salient – and the essence of being an American is impossible to separate from this whole set of national beliefs about celebrating the Fourth of July, not eating insects, wanting freedom and democracy, and believing that Superman lives atop Mt. Whitney. Outside the community of people who 100% believe all these things, there’s just unreachable foreigners whose language you do not speak and whose customs seem somewhere between inscrutable and barbaric.
That was ancient religion – culture in a world where culture meant something. It was nothing like modern religion – which is why you never hear the Greeks complaining that the Egyptians were evil heretics who denied the light of Zeus and needed to be converted by the sword. But ancients nevertheless felt a connection to their culture and community that combined modern patriotism, religious piety, and belief in science – and they expressed it by continuing to perform their rites and even dying for them.
The question of the origin of religion comes down to how these cultures evolved into the clearly-defined religions of the modern day.
I think a big part of this is ossification and separation from context. The Jewish law perfectly preserves what any right-thinking Israelite in 1000 BC would have considered obvious, natural, and not-even-needing-justification (much as any right-thinking American today considers not eating insects obvious). By the time the Bible was being written this was no longer true – foreign customs and inevitable social change were making the old law seem less and less relevant, and I think modern scholarship thinks the Bible was written by a conservative faction of priests making their case for adherence to the old ways. The act of writing it down in a book, declaring this book the sort of thing that people might doubt but shouldn’t, and then passing that book to their children – that made it a modern religion, in the sense of something potentially separable from culture that required justification. I think that emphasizing the role of God and the gods provided that justification.
The Hebrew Bible never says other gods don’t exist; indeed, it often says the opposite. It constantly praises God as stronger and better than other gods. God proves his superiority over the gods of the Egyptians when the serpent he sends Moses eats the serpents the Egyptian gods send Pharaoh’s sorcerers. The Israelites are constantly warned against worshipping other gods, not because those gods don’t exist but because God is better and also jealous. This is not the worldview of somebody who has very strong ideas about the nature of reality and how supernatural beings fit into that nature. It’s the worldview of people who want to say “Our culture is better than your culture”. The Bible uses “worshipping foreign gods” as synonymous with “turning to foreign ways”. But God has a covenant with Israel, therefore both are forbidden.
This seems to match religion in the classical world – I’m especially thinking of Augustus’ conception here, but he wasn’t drawing it out of a vacuum. Performing the proper rites to the Roman gods was how you showed you were on board with Roman culture was how you showed you were loyal to Rome. The Roman view of religion seems pretty ridiculous to us – constant influx of new gods and mystery cults that were believed kind of indiscriminately, plus occasional deification of leading political figures followed by their undeification once they fell from power. But throughout it all, this idea that following the rites as Romulus prescribed them showed loyalty, but doing otherwise would result in decadence and defeat, stuck around.
More modern religions like Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism are a bit different. Obviously their respective founders play a huge role, but I still think part of what makes them religions rather than just philosophies or spiritual teachings is that they underwent this ossification process. Just as modern Judaism preserves many features of 10th-century-BC Israel that got encoded into holy writ, so modern Christianity preserves many features of 1st century Judeo-Hellenist syncretism. In fact, it preserves a lot of features of 13th-century scholasticism, since that was when they really became serious about formalizing and officializing their theology. At the time scholasticism wasn’t particularly religious; it was just the best understanding the 13th century academic community had about the world around them. Since the Church officialized it, everyone else drifted away and they didn’t.
I think it’s also possible that the first few followers of these religions ended up as a subculture, with as much arbitrary subcultural development as any other tribe. My personal experience with subcultures tells me they can get very different customs from the surrounding society very fast, with or without any connection to real feature of their rallying flag. Those unusual subcultural values then became the values of the religion that developed later.
Hopefully the connection to Monday’s post is pretty clear. The important thing about a religion is that it has a rallying flag that encourages it to preserve a certain culture, plus walls against the outside world. Crucially, despite everything I’m saying about ossification the culture changes a lot: King Solomon would probably recognize modern rabbinic Judaism, but only barely. But it changes in a way different from the way the outside secular society changes, and in ways bound by the ossified text, so there’s still an element of having this ancient culture preserved in amber and maintained up to the modern day.