18 Apr 2009

The Evolution of Religions

Posted by jofr

Jared Diamond is a professor of geography at UCLA and author of the popular bestsellers Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. In this lecture, Diamond argues that religion has encompassed at least four independent components and functions that have arisen or disappeared at different stages of development of human societies over the last 10,000 years (the talk is only 40 minutes, the rest are questions and answers).

He asks what the benefit and function of a religion for a society is, and lists four basic functions: explanation, justification of government, conservation of society, motivation of warfare. The first function has been taken over by science, the second function has been taken over by politics and the political system, the third function has been taken over by courts and the legal system, and the fourth has become obsolete. Originally an important function was explanation of nature, culture, society and history. Another function is to justify the existence of chiefs, kings and priests and other centralized decision makers. Religions have the function to teach obedience and moral values (what’s right and what’s wrong). And finally they justify wars against other religions. Therefore religions originally were not only an aspect of society, they enabled a society and higher civilization in the first place. They were able to hold a larger society together, where no longer everyone knows everybody. Religion is an assemble of shared beliefs and values which enable the creation, existence and cohesion of a group by combining the interests of the individual with the interests of the community. A blog post said about religions and people

Many years ago, a missionary doctor told me that most Africans – in the nation he was proud to serve – had little use for communists or communism because the communists said there is no God – so we can do whatever we want. The Africans generally said, “Everyone knows there is a God. Every reasonable person can see that. The world we live in shows it clearly. What people want to know is how to get in touch with him, and get help for our problems.”

Religion prevents that we can do whatever we want, and it tells us how to get in touch with god (which stands here for the group), and how to get help from the group for all kinds of personal problems. As Randall Collins notices in his book Sociological Insight, the basic religious terms are related to group terms:

  • priest: teaches rules of a group
  • prophet: creates or invents rules for a group
  • sin: breaking the rules of a group
  • blessing: wish to be included in the group
  • curse: wish to be excluded or banned from a group
  • heaven: to be included and supported by the whole group
  • hell: to be excluded and haunted by the whole group
  • salvation: to be saved by the group from punishment and annihilation
  • damnation: to be condemned to permanent exclusion from the group
  • good: positive for the group (i.e. help a member)
  • evil: negative for the group (i.e. hurt a member)
  • profane: belongs to the individual
  • divine/sacred: belongs to the group
  • sacred text: history of the group
  • sacrifice: gift from a member to the group, who donates something to the group. In the strongest form this can even be the life of a member: a deliberate loss of an individual (like Apoptosis) to benefit the group
  • baptism:¬†creation of a new group membership
  • to be baptized / to be reborn: to become a new member of a group

Religion is all about groups and communities. A group is larger, stronger and bigger than a single individual and can of course accomplish much more. Community structure and religion were indeed closely related in ancient cultures: city states with many independent cities had many gods, one for each city, which was worshipped in the temple of the city. In small countries like Israel with only one major city and one temple, there was only one god. A unified empire or strong dictatorship often also tolerates only one religion and one god. In ancient cities, the house of god was temple, town-hall and storeroom. Today, the house of god is a name for a church, and the church is the place where the meetings of the religious group takes place. Basically, the house of god is the house of the group.

If we want to know how society arises and what continues to hold it together, we must take a look at religions. Their evolution is an interesting topic. Religions are the glue which keeps societies together by shared beliefs and common social rituals. They are a set of memes which use groups as survival machines. In all early cultures a religion was the central element that made the emergence and the existence of a society possible. And if we want to know how self-consciousness arises, we have to look at religions, too. The belief in the self (or soul) and the belief in god are very similar. In both cases, an invisible, immortal agent is identified, in the first case it controls the person, in the second case the group, country or society. To be effective, the belief must be enforced by recurrent rituals: private prayers are nothing must concentrated actions for the crowd within, public prayers are social rituals for assembled groups. Social rituals glorifying the founders and the common interests of groups have a central function: they manifest in their synchronicity the ties holding people together, and they enforce them through feedback illusions. By collectively performing activities, the group acts as a single unit.

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2 Responses to “The Evolution of Religions”

  1. […] that we don’t need the concept. I don’t think he is right, as I wrote earlier about the evolution of religions. Similarly, Steven Pinker says we don’t need the term soul in the sense of a ‘Ghost in […]

  2. […] become insignificant, in the beginning it was the single most significant part of a culture. The evolution of religions is apparently associated with the evolution of culture. Religions¬†tell people what they should […]


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