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Ch. 3 - Religion in the Age of Chiefdoms 
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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Religion in the Age of Chiefdoms
I had posted under the wrong chapter thread. Please go to "Gods of the Ancient States."


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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Religion in the Age of Chiefdoms
Hey DWill,

I think this last post is related to chapter four, isn't it? I'm planning on posting some of my thoughts too.


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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Religion in the Age of Chiefdoms
InviQtus wrote:
Hello all!

Wright wrote:
Modern science, like modern economics and modern law and modern government, evolved from primordial forms that were symbiotically intertwined with religious thought. In fact, it isn't obvious that we would have any of these modern institutions had it not been for early religion, which did so much to carry human social organization and culture beyond the hunter-gatherer stage.


Thus far Robert Wright has not provided us with a definition of just exactly what he means by "religion". That seems to me to be a significant omission on his part. But the way in which he is using the term suggests that religion is primarily a way of explaining how the world is that allows for and makes use of supernatural concepts and entities (to be sure, hunter- gatherer societies probably made no explicit distinction between natural and supernatural).

So if we conceive of religion this way, then it seems obvious that Wright is crediting religion for laying the groundwork for modern science too much. The point has been made by many people before that science is continuous with everyday forms of inquiry. That being the case there is no more reason to say that those early attempts to explain phenomena via supernatural explanations were any more necessary than those early attempts that lacked supernatural components.

So, just as surely as we would have morality (thus modern law and modern government) without religion, as a natural consequence of the fact that we are sentient beings living in large, complex social groups, we would have still have modern science without religion as a natural consequence of the fact that we live in a complex world that we need to figure out in order to improve our conditions and odds of survival. In fact, in my opinion, we would not have had religion to begin with without those facts of the human condition.


First, let me say that I hate this book, even though I think Wright is onto something important in the idea that the concept of god is evolving in response to specific changes in society. For starters, I think Wright has made a grievous error in his approach to looking at early religious practices and beliefs. He acts as if it is possible to separate out "religion" from the rest of a hunter/gatherer or tribal or even chiefdom society as if it were a separate entity distinct from economics, politics, healing arts, art, etc. It makes as much sense to talk about shaman, spirits, and belief in the supernatural as being the starting point from which modern medicine, science, law and politics began as it does religion. What we know as the institutions of society do not really begin to pull themselves apart until a society becomes a chiefdom and even then they are still very interwoven. I think I can show why I think this is a problem using the example of his discussion of the shaman. Wright views the shaman primarily as part of religion, serving a religious function. This is too narrow. In many societies a shaman was as much a healer and an enforcer of morality (not part of religion in h/g societies) as he/she was a religious leader (not really a good word, but I can't think of a more correct term). There are many functions that a shaman serves in a society; he/she is not just a religious figure. So which functions are religious and which are not?


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Sun Oct 03, 2010 7:43 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Religion in the Age of Chiefdoms
Saffron wrote:
First, let me say that I hate this book, even though I think Wright is onto something important in the idea that the concept of god is evolving in response to specific changes in society. For starters, I think Wright has made a grievous error in his approach to looking at early religious practices and beliefs. He acts as if it is possible to separate out "religion" from the rest of a hunter/gatherer or tribal or even chiefdom society as if it were a separate entity distinct from economics, politics, healing arts, art, etc.

I'm not sure I'll succeed in addressing the point you're making, but from Wright's statement that in these early societies there is apparently no word for religion, as well as other things he says about how religion (though they don't have the word!) infuses everything, I perceive that he's not trying to separate religion from these other entities. That couldn't be done, he says, because there is what we would call a religious dimension to every aspect of life, from the civil to the economic to the domestic.
Quote:
It makes as much sense to talk about shaman, spirits, and belief in the supernatural as being the starting point from which modern medicine, science, law and politics began as it does religion.

I'm reading "shaman, spirits, and belief" as being about the same as "religion," and so I don't seem to be understanding the point. Wright does generally go along with the idea that belief in the supernatural provided a breeding ground for science, medicine, and law.
Quote:
What we know as the institutions of society do not really begin to pull themselves apart until a society becomes a chiefdom and even then they are still very interwoven. I think I can show why I think this is a problem using the example of his discussion of the shaman. Wright views the shaman primarily as part of religion, serving a religious function. This is too narrow. In many societies a shaman was as much a healer and an enforcer of morality (not part of religion in h/g societies) as he/she was a religious leader (not really a good word, but I can't think of a more correct term). There are many functions that a shaman serves in a society; he/she is not just a religious figure. So which functions are religious and which are not?

I see Wright painting the shaman as a man (sadly, always?) of broad power who has a sort of contract with the people to intercede with the spirit world on their behalf. This includes healing individuals, promoting the well-being of the group, and settling disputes. The latter two functions point to the important political role of the shaman. As Wright says, "in some societies the shaman and the political leader have been one and the same " (p. 42). This seems to indicate interwovenness of institutions, so again I'm getting the feeling that Wright is mostly agreeing with what you're objecting to.


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Sun Oct 03, 2010 8:48 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Religion in the Age of Chiefdoms
DW:
Thanks for trying to repond to my post. I will just apologize for it rather than try to clarify. It was an incomplete and muddled. It is too hard to think after a 12 hour shift.


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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Religion in the Age of Chiefdoms
Saffron wrote:
First, let me say that I hate this book, even though I think Wright is onto something important in the idea that the concept of god is evolving in response to specific changes in society. For starters, I think Wright has made a grievous error in his approach to looking at early religious practices and beliefs. He acts as if it is possible to separate out "religion" from the rest of a hunter/gatherer or tribal or even chiefdom society as if it were a separate entity distinct from economics, politics, healing arts, art, etc. It makes as much sense to talk about shaman, spirits, and belief in the supernatural as being the starting point from which modern medicine, science, law and politics began as it does religion. What we know as the institutions of society do not really begin to pull themselves apart until a society becomes a chiefdom and even then they are still very interwoven. I think I can show why I think this is a problem using the example of his discussion of the shaman. Wright views the shaman primarily as part of religion, serving a religious function. This is too narrow. In many societies a shaman was as much a healer and an enforcer of morality (not part of religion in h/g societies) as he/she was a religious leader (not really a good word, but I can't think of a more correct term). There are many functions that a shaman serves in a society; he/she is not just a religious figure. So which functions are religious and which are not?


I don't think your thinking is muddled, Saffron. You make some interesting points. I think it's true that Wright tries to examine early beliefs by applying a modern understanding of "religion" and it's bound to fail on some level. As you say the primitives didn't have a concept for religion at all. If language forms our reality, truly the primitives didn't have religion the way we understand the word today. Still, I get the feeling that Wright is looking only for the beginnings of religious thought and it's there in those primitive beliefs, even if it doesn't resemble what we would call religion today. These early attempts to understand and engage with the world would have had to be on a mystical level because there was no possibility for scientific/empirical understanding. As science gradually shed light on some of the natural mechanisms, those early primitive gropings in the dark would eventually split into separate entities that you mention: economics, politics, healing arts, art, etc.


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