This is one of my favourite essays I wrote for an anthropology course in comparitive religion. I didn't get a whole helluva lot of response for it in the Religion section of the forums; let's see what I get here.
The religions of a people often mirror that culture’s social reality. In broad categories of society such as small-scale hunter-gatherer societies, horticultural chiefdoms, and agricultural/state societies, general trends can be noted in how otherworldly beings are organized, the interactions between these beings and humankind, and the status of mortals within the cosmology during and after life. This contradicts the speculations of many early modern philosophers regarding the nature of religion who often espoused a common, if ethnocentric view, that a culture would “progress” through a series of religious “stages” such as animism, polytheism, and, eventually to the “ultimate” stage, monotheism. These trends also contradict another common assertion amongst early modern philosophers, which is that each stage of religion dictated a culture’s moral and social values. Ludwig Feuerbach, a German philosopher, came closest to recognizing that religion is a reflection of society, as shown by his claims that theology is anthropology and that the history of religion is the history of man. Yet even he still believed that religion underwent a “progression” that was the source of moral and social value.
The organization of divine beings within a society is often a direct reflection of that society’s stratification and class structure. Small-scale hunter-gatherer societies are generally egalitarian and marked by a lack of hierarchy amongst their divine beings save for familial relationships. For the Inuit, political leadership was informal, at best, and usually based on personal characteristics and kinship ties. They believed all things to have a spirit or inua. Like the Inuit, these spirits had little in the way of any hierarchy of power over each other (Scupin, 2000: pp. 146-151). The Australian Aborigines commonly held a belief that all living things are created by ancestral spirits, which live in an otherworld referred to as “Dreamtime”. Again, like the Inuit, the Australian Aborigines only have an informal system of leadership, though, as is reflected in their beliefs, there is more importance placed on lineage and kinship (Scupin: pp. 160-162).
There is a marked difference in hierarchy of divine beings between those of small-scale hunter-gatherers and those of horticultural chiefdoms. A hierarchical arrangement of entities often accompanies more complex forms of leadership. Amongst the Iroquois, there existed a belief in a being responsible for the creation of all that is good in the universe. This Good or Great Spirit held command over the good gods, all of whom are his children. This leadership by lineage reflects and contrasts the matrilineal system of inheritance and influence that appointed a council of leadership that usually consisted of the sons of the elder matrons (Scupin: pp. 151-154). Amongst African chiefdoms, these differences are even more pronounced. The role of kings amongst African tribes is paralleled by the concept of a supreme being, which holds power over all other gods. The gods are also more specialized as are the roles of people. For example, the smiths have their own gods as do a number of other specialists (Carter, 2000: pp. 178-202).
With the introduction of complex bureaucracies in agricultural/state societies often comes a plethora of deities to fill various roles similar to those of human concern. Often, these pantheons include the gods of cultures assimilated after conquest. The importance of the chief deity is also usually more pronounced. The Egyptian pantheon, for example, changed continually throughout the centuries of this cultures existence, and yet has retained the deity Horus, a sky god, as the divine representation of order and kingship throughout most of its history (Quirke and Spencer, 1992: pp. 65-69). There are also more complex interactions between the deities such as factions and alliances. This is shown in the writings of the Greek poet Homer. In his account of the Trojan War, there are factions of gods acting for and against the Trojans. This reflects the importance of forming alliances in the Greek political world (Fuller and Fuller, 2000: pp. 208-213).
The interactions between the divine and humankind also reflect the social reality of a culture. In small-scale hunter-gatherer societies, this interaction is often very personal and tangible. These beings are treated with great respect and reverence. However, though there is pronounced contact between humans and spirits, they stand more-or-less as equals to be negotiated with. The shamans of the Inuit, for example, actually bargain with spirits for better success in hunting and food gathering (Scupin: pp. 146-151). For Australian Aborigines, it is vital to interact with the otherworld or “Dreaming”. The ancestral spirits serves as the all-important intermediaries between this world and that. This same level of respect is shared for the natural world and each other (Scupin: pp.160-162).
Where small-scale hunter-gather societies generally had only one religious specialist; horticultural chiefdoms often have many for specific interactions with the other realm. Amongst a number of African groups, for example, there can be as many as three different religious specialists just to perform healing: one determines the nature of the illness, another performs a diagnosis, and third performs the actual healing. This echoes inreasing levels of specialization of tasks in African society. Another important feature is the concept of rulership by divine right. An example of this is the link between the gods and the genealogy of the high chiefs, or Ali’i. This serves to legitimize rulership.
These interactions are further complicated in agricultural/state societies (Carter: pp. 178-202). The Egyptian Pharaoh was believed to be a god incarnate and ruled with divine authority. Though there were many priesthoods amongst these cultures, including some dedicated to almost every god of a pantheon, there was generally a much greater detachment between the lower ranks of society and religious life (Quirke and Spencer: pp. 65-69). In many cases, common people had to rely almost entirely on priesthoods to intercede with the gods on their behalf. This reflects a marriage between religious power and social power. As the separation between the common class and the religious sects increased, occurrences of mystery cults occurred. These were separate religions founded specifically for the participation of common people. The deities of these religions often reflected a desire for personal liberty.
The status of humans in the spirit world both during and after life tells much of their status in the social world. In small-scale hunter-gather societies, as was mentioned earlier, humans and spirits have little dominance over each other. Most Inuit believed that when something dies, its spirit remains in the world, waiting to be eventually reborn. Thus, no life had special importance over another. All things are sacred (Scupin: pp. 146-151). The Australian Aborigines would perform many rites to gain contact with the Dreaming, and, when they died, they would return to live in it perpetually. Although the spirits of the Dreaming were of great importance to them, they also did not have any political power over the people. These types of beliefs reflected a general lack of any strong central authority (Scupin: pp.160-162).
In horticultural chiefdoms, however, the gods often have a more direct hand in the affairs of humans and are superior to them. In African cultures, sacrifices of animals, food, and valuables are often required to procure and maintain the favor of the gods. For many African cultures, distinguished people continue on in the afterworld as ancestor spirits who continue to interact with the human world. Sacrifices are often made to maintain their favor as well. These kinds of beliefs mirror an increasing need to satisfy the demands of rulership to maintain its good graces. As the gods are superior to people, so, too, are the ruling authorities (Carter: pp. 178-202).
Human beings within agricultural/state societies are usually clearly subservient to the gods. This reinforces the political power held by the leaders of these cultures. These gods, and their rulers, often demand much from the common classes. Political power is also enforced by the concept of judgement. An example of this is found in the Egyptian religious system of later periods. When a person dies, part of their spirit, or ka, is brought to judgement. The “heart” is measured to determine if the person led a life of merit. If so, the person went on to lead a pleasant afterlife that was much the same as his or her former life. If not, the unfortunate person was tossed into the ravenous jaws of a chimera-like beast and destroyed (Quirke and Spencer: p. 94). This system of judgement is expanded in the Greek religion by the concept of eternal punishment. Offending souls, upon arrival in the Greek underworld would be set to punishments they would endure forever. Particularly grievous offenders would be tortured by cruel beings known as the Furies (Fuller and Fuller, 2000: pp. 208-213). The concept of judgement reflected the power over life and death that the rulers of these societies had over most others. And as social concepts of merit where often tied to obedience to the system, the concept of judgement also offered powerful rewards and punishments to maintain the status of the society.
Few cultures follow anything resembling the model of religious “progression” presented by early modern philosophers. In fact, given that these models are based on the history of Western civilization, the only cultures that seem to actually follow these “progressions” are those of Western civilization! Arguments for the “superiority” of any culture over another have been rejected by most on the grounds of ethnocentric and subjective value judgements. The examples of how a religion’s cosomology is a reflection of a culture’s social reality are as varied and numerous as cultures themselves. As such, they lend evidence to suggest that religious development does not follow the models presented by early modern philosophers and, thus, disqualifies much of their arguments regarding the nature of religion.
Carter, Jeffrey African Religions, Religion and Culture: An Anthropological Focus New York: Prentice Hall, 2000
Fuller, Michael and Fuller, Neathery Classical Religions of the Old World, Religion and Culture: An Anthropological Focus New York: Prentice Hall, 2000
Quirke, Stephen and Spencer Jeffrey, editors The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt New York: Thames and Hudson, 1992
Scupin, Raymond Aboriginal Religions, Religion and Culture: An Anthropological Focus New York: Prentice Hall, 2000
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