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Ch. 3 - Religion in the Age of Chiefdoms 
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Post Ch. 3 - Religion in the Age of Chiefdoms
Ch. 3 - Religion in the Age of Chiefdoms



Sun Aug 15, 2010 11:13 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Religion in the Age of Chiefdoms
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.



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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Religion in the Age of Chiefdoms
Thanks for your post, and welcome to the discussion. Wright seems to go along here with Emile Durkheim, whose statement about the foundational importance of religion he quoted. I'm not able right now to give full consideration to your doubts about Wright/Durkheim, but one instance where it does seem that superstitious belief laid the groundwork for science is astrology. It was the observation entailed by that practice that turned out to have significance for the real science of astronomy.



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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Religion in the Age of Chiefdoms
Hello InviQtus, thanks for joining this discussion and for these interesting comments. Welcome to Booktalk. As I read him, Wright endorses William James' definition of religion as that "there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto" (p27). I'm not sure what you mean by "early attempts that lacked supernatural components." Wright seems to be of the view that all early attempts at explanation assumed the existence of powerful supernatural deities.



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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Religion in the Age of Chiefdoms
Robert wrote:
As I read him, Wright endorses William James' definition of religion as that "there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto" (p27). I'm not sure what you mean by "early attempts that lacked supernatural components." Wright seems to be of the view that all early attempts at explanation assumed the existence of powerful supernatural deities.


Thanks for the warm reception Robert.

All I mean by "early attempts that lacked supernatural components" is that surely there must have been some elements of the hunter-gatherers understanding of the world, as simple as it may have been, that did not have reference to any unseen order, i.e. those animals are moving toward the river because they are thirsty- that sort of thing. My only point being that, contra Robert Wright, while supernatural explanations preceded naturalistic ones (and we would expect for that to have been the case) there is no reason to believe that modern science would not have come about without such beginnings. I disagree with him that there is a "debt science owes to religion". Religious explanations and scientific explanations are two different species of attempts at providing an explanation, and they both owe a debt to the fact of human existence that it is in our great interest to find good explanations.



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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Religion in the Age of Chiefdoms
InviQtus wrote:
All I mean by "early attempts that lacked supernatural components" is that surely there must have been some elements of the hunter-gatherers understanding of the world, as simple as it may have been, that did not have reference to any unseen order, i.e. those animals are moving toward the river because they are thirsty- that sort of thing. My only point being that, contra Robert Wright, while supernatural explanations preceded naturalistic ones (and we would expect for that to have been the case) there is no reason to believe that modern science would not have come about without such beginnings. I disagree with him that there is a "debt science owes to religion". Religious explanations and scientific explanations are two different species of attempts at providing an explanation, and they both owe a debt to the fact of human existence that it is in our great interest to find good explanations.


Wright observes that primitive animist religion saw every object as animated by a unique spirit, linking it to an unseen order. The old axiom 'as above so below' suggests that every mundane event is a reflection of supramundane reality. So the unseen order is pervasive for primitive religion, guiding all mundane worldly decisions.

The hypothetical argument that science does not build on religion is like imagining that we could build a house without scaffolding. Conceptually we could imagine it but practically it is not a description of actual history, in which all science replaces earlier speculative ideas, just as all (or most) buildings use scaffolding. Religion was an attempt to explain reality, and has now degenerated into a justification to protect community values. So I agree with you that science and religion are different species, marking the distinction between observation and speculation, but without the curiosity that drove speculation scientists could never have achieved the modern systematic ability to observe. Religious speculation is the scaffolding that enables the real useful building of scientific observation.

We have jumped ahead here to Chapter Three. Depending on what DWill wants to do as the discussion leader, it may be better to put this on hold for a week or so until we have covered Chapter Two, on shamanism. I think this book lends itself very well to a chapter by chapter discussion, as each chapter has distinct themes that are cumulative.



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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Religion in the Age of Chiefdoms
Great point about the continuities between religion and science, Robert. I think you're also right about skipping back to the shaman chapter for now. But thanks to InviQtus for sparking the discussion.



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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Religion in the Age of Chiefdoms
Thanks to the both of you for your interesting responses. The quote I began the discussion with is actually from chapter 3. I know it would be helpful if I provided a page number, but I am reading from a kindle and so all I can tell you is that it can be found toward the end of that chapter (10% into the book).

Robert Tulip wrote:
The hypothetical argument that science does not build on religion is like imagining that we could build a house without scaffolding. Conceptually we could imagine it but practically it is not a description of actual history, in which all science replaces earlier speculative ideas, just as all (or most) buildings use scaffolding.


I would say that, in my opinion, science and religion (religion as an attempt to understand how the world works) are both motivated by the same set of drives, namely, innate curiosity and the payoff that comes with an improved ability to predict and control your surrounding conditions. So science would have emerged eventually, it seems to me, as a natural consequence of those drives, whether or not religion preceded it.

That said, it is difficult to see how empirical explanations, rather than supernatural ones, might have come to mind first in primitive societies given that they lacked such a distinction and they had only minimal collective experience to guide their efforts. But does science need the "scaffolding" of religion? I don't see any logical reason why it would, although there are certainly psychological reasons why supernatural explanations would have seemed more intuitive to primitive thinkers and thus would have come first.

Robert Tulip wrote:
Religion was an attempt to explain reality, and has now degenerated into a justification to protect community values. So I agree with you that science and religion are different species, marking the distinction between observation and speculation, but without the curiosity that drove speculation scientists could never have achieved the modern systematic ability to observe. Religious speculation is the scaffolding that enables the real useful building of scientific observation.


I tend to think that the curiosity necessary for science, rather than growing out of religion or being sparked by religion, is, in fact what impels religious attempts at explaining the world as well as, later, scientific ones. If that is the case then religion is not so much scaffolding for modern science as it is just early, unstructured guesses based on what seemed intuitive and what happened to capture the minds of adherents at the time, but fueled, none the less, by the same types of motivations.

However, there is one sense in which we might say that modern science does owe a debt to religion that I find intriguing, but I will save that for discussions on chapter four.



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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Religion in the Age of Chiefdoms
Sorry for jumping back to chapter 3. I've been following along with the discussion. I'm currently reading Breaking the Spell by Dennet, and there is some good information that could carry over to this discussion.

I don't think the progress from religion to science was linear. It seems there are Good Tricks(evolutionarily adaptive strategies) that had helped us survive which contributed to our development of both science and religion. Curiosity and pattern recognition for both, agency detection and the intentional stance for religion, observation and induction for science. But these all mix and match, of course. Some observation and some induction would be used in the formulation of religion.

My point is that both science and religion arose from faculties which had evolved long before either. Even arguing that the progress was culturally linear may be off track. For example, a major breakthrough in the philosophy of science in the 16th century was based entirely on a critique of Aristotle and his natural philosophy, along with modern findings. I have the book around here somewhere, I'll find it when the chapter 3 discussion picks back up if you'd like, along with the name of the philosopher and how he influenced later movements such as positivism and whatnot.

Quote:
All I mean by "early attempts that lacked supernatural components" is that surely there must have been some elements of the hunter-gatherers understanding of the world, as simple as it may have been, that did not have reference to any unseen order, i.e. those animals are moving toward the river because they are thirsty- that sort of thing


This is an example of what Dennet calls the "intentional stance". It is one step more complex than simple agency detection, since not only does it consider something as an agent, but it attributes that agent with intention. So to back up a step, agency detection is a survival mechanism that animals have evolved all across the globe. Perhaps simultaneously as evidence suggest at points, but mainly due to genetic lineage. For example, a clam is stupid, but it reacts quickly to close it's shell whenever it detects movement that could potentially be dangerous.

A key point to realize here is that a hyperactive "agency detection device" is more beneficial than an underactive one, for obvious reasons. It's better to be safe than sorry. This same agency detection device is found in almost all animals(I'd say all, but I love weasel words). For example, your dog when he jumps up and barks at a falling branch, or even scowls at it. We can easily extrapolate from here without having to read Dennets book how humans see agency in things such as lightning and storms, rivers, volcanoes, etc. If we then apply an intentional stance, we've animated the inanimate in ways that would inevitably lead to the development of supernatural explanations.



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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Religion in the Age of Chiefdoms
(This post concerns Chapter 3 up to the subheading "The Dark Side of Polynesian Gods.")

Step one, the starting point, in the evolution of god was a scenario in which the gods didn't control morality because they themselves tended to be amoral. They could do bad things to people, bless them, or ignore them, but they were indifferent to what people did to other people. The innate moral sense of the hunter-gatherers enabled them to live in acceptable harmony without divine direction. This is how Wright puts it, at least. Someone who has time might want to critique this generalization. It seems to me that even if it is generally true that the gods of the h-gs didn't care about human morality, the net effect of their omnipresence in life would have contributed to a social order we associate with morality. But I'm sure Wright would agree the distinctions between hunter-gatherer and the next type of social organization he discusses, the chiefdom, are not in reality sharp ones, and that he generalizes for the sake of the discussion.

Certainly we can observe that in the illustration of boat-building there is nothing explicitly moral in purpose. The point is for the fishermen to catch fish when they venture out in their boat. But the effect of this elaborate observation of ritual and appeasement would be to promote social order. You just wouldn't have the time to break bad in such a society. Wright says that the main difference between the h-g groups and chiefdoms is that the greater size (and automatically, complexity) of the latter created a need for social control that came to be filled by religion. Secular means such as a code of laws were a long ways off in development.

"In this phase of cultural evolution--with personal policing [of the h-g level of organization] having lost its charm but with government not yet talking up the slack--a supplementary force of social control was called for. Religion seems to have responded to the call. Whereas religion in hunter-gatherer societies didn't have much of a moral dimension, religion in the Polynesian chiefdoms did: it systematically discouraged antisocial behavior" (p. 55).

However, Wright goes on to concede that even Polynesia's gods and goddesses are pretty much the same amoral crew as in the h-g societies. The difference is that punishments for infractions were placed up there with them, so that they could punish humans while continuing to act worse than they.

This next sentence seems to be a very key one to Wright's thesis in the book. It is also a field of contention between justifiers and opponents of religion: ""And religion in chiefdoms was doing more than fill in for not-yet-invented secular laws; it was paving the way for secular laws " (p. 58). A good way to start an argument is to say that while Christianity had its notable problems, we would not be at the better place we are today without it.



Last edited by DWill on Sun Sep 05, 2010 7:07 am, edited 1 time in total.



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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Religion in the Age of Chiefdoms
I don't know that Wright comes out and says it, but it's clear that he is a "functionalist" when it comes to religion. His notion that God is evolving toward an inclusive form assumes that the interests of society have been served, on balance, by religion. The rest of the chapter, after "The Dark Side of Polynesian Gods," is his attempt to show how practices that seem pointless, bizarre, cruel, or inefficient could nevertheless be functional in a society that lacked most social institutions that we take for granted, such as law and currency. He has already said that these later institutions are built upon the religions of the chiefdom societies. Now he adds science to the list.

Wright may seem to digress quite a lot, but I think he does it to link these ethnographic facts to his theme. Readers who are thinking he piles on these facts would be glad, presumably, that he tells us what their significance is.



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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Religion in the Age of Chiefdoms
O, he does indeed love to digress and, more annoyingly, repeat himself and become rather simplistic to make sure all of his readers actually did take the point. My nit-pick in this chapter was his statement that early anthropologists were highly judgmental.....and then continued on to state that he was proud that we have gotten past the need in our society to strangle a child. And he enjoyed making the comparison of Cook's statement on the "waste of the human race" to his contemporary England throwing the poor into debtors' prison. Point taken. But....this is indeed dangerous territory he's treading on: it is difficult to draw comparisons without being judgmental.
However, he did a nice job introducing a case study of cultural evolution and its symbiosis to religious evolution and the chapter was perfectly readable.


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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Religion in the Age of Chiefdoms
oblivion wrote:
O, he does indeed love to digress and, more annoyingly, repeat himself and become rather simplistic to make sure all of his readers actually did take the point. My nit-pick in this chapter was his statement that early anthropologists were highly judgmental.....and then continued on to state that he was proud that we have gotten past the need in our society to strangle a child. And he enjoyed making the comparison of Cook's statement on the "waste of the human race" to his contemporary England throwing the poor into debtors' prison. Point taken. But....this is indeed dangerous territory he's treading on: it is difficult to draw comparisons without being judgmental.
However, he did a nice job introducing a case study of cultural evolution and its symbiosis to religious evolution and the chapter was perfectly readable.

Yes, true, he won't avoid judging, even if his judging isn't quite the same as what is implied in the modern word 'judgmental.' Deciding whether religion has in fact been responsible for moral progress is a process of judging for which there are no real parameters available. It's like trying to say that religion has been more good than bad, or more bad than good. We judge this according to our general sense, which is always going to incorporate emotional as well as empirical data.



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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Religion in the Age of Chiefdoms
oblivion wrote:
. . . But....this is indeed dangerous territory he's treading on: it is difficult to draw comparisons without being judgmental.
However, he did a nice job introducing a case study of cultural evolution and its symbiosis to religious evolution and the chapter was perfectly readable.


This doesn't feel like dangerous territory to me and I don't get a sense that Wright is being condescending towards primitive beliefs. The fast march of cultural evolution will always mean that habits and customs and mores of an older time period will always look dated or quaint or, in other ways, anachronistic by modern standards. It's hard to imagine that in the U.S., women were granted the right to vote just ninety years ago. That seems so strange by today's standards at a time when equality has become the norm.

Wright says religion in the Polynesian culture began to assume a rudimentary moral dimension. There was no fear of eternal punishment in the afterlife, but there was fear of being punished in this life. A murderer might be haunted by the ghost of his victim, but he can make amends by building three houses, one for the victim's kin, one for his servants, and one for his bones (pg. 57). In this example, a superstitious fear of ghosts is supplied with a specific cure—build houses. You can see the beginnings of a religious tenet here. If you offend an unearthly spirit you can still make amends. During the hunter-gatherer phase and in the age of the chiefdoms, religion is still fairly nebulous and unstructured, but as religion evolves it becomes more structured. You would have to convince me how this is any kind of improvement. I suspect it is just a consequence of a more complex society.

(Michael from The Office: I'm not superstitious. I'm a little stitious.)

Since we are talking about the moral dimension of religion, it may be relevant to look at Kohlberg's stages of moral development. Kohlberg developed a theory that delineates moral reasoning into six distinct cognitive stages.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kohlberg's ... evelopment

Level 1 (Pre-Conventional)
1. Obedience and punishment orientation
(How can I avoid punishment?)
2. Self-interest orientation
(What's in it for me?)

Level 2 (Conventional)
3. Interpersonal accord and conformity
(Social norms)
(The good boy/good girl attitude)
4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation
(Law and order morality)

Level 3 (Post-Conventional)
5. Social contract orientation
6. Universal ethical principles
(Principled conscience)

What's important to understand, I think, is that these are stages of development, meaning that you have to pass through Level I to get to Level II and so on. It's a progression. I would think that morality at the state level would also have to pass through stages of development and that different societies will progress at different times. That's why you would see Captain Cook being appalled at the idea of human sacrifice in Polynesia because 18th century England, despite its tax prisons, was much more advanced culturally and morally. And here in the West in 2010 it's appalling to think that in some Islamic cultures, stoning is still practiced. On the other hand, we still have capital punishment and I'm not sure the psychological torture of being a dead man walking is any better than being stoned to death. But that's another discussion.


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Post Re: Ch. 3 - Religion in the Age of Chiefdoms
geo wrote:
This doesn't feel like dangerous territory to me and I don't get a sense that Wright is being condescending towards primitive beliefs. The fast march of cultural evolution will always mean that habits and customs and mores of an older time period will always look dated or quaint or, in other ways, anachronistic by modern standards. It's hard to imagine that in the U.S., women were granted the right to vote just ninety years ago. That seems so strange by today's standards at a time when equality has become the norm.

geo, I appreciate your strong point of view here, and it is my sense, too, that in countries that have been able to modernize there are prevailing cultural attitudes that represent moral progress (I would add regard for the disabled to your rights of women). But I wonder if you would agree that this matter of us against the past, morally, is at least a tricky thing to assess. We tend to think of signature abuses occurring in the past, such as persecutions (of and by Christians, for example), but these may be committed by powerful elites and not so much by the mass of people. At any given time in the past, only isolated instances of severe abuses occurred, so we can't easily say that "everybody did it." In our own time (relative to the scope of history) we had the six million dead in The Holocaust, arguably a more heinous crime than any that preceded it. We insulate ourselves from this by saying it was isolated to one country or that it was "long ago," but when we do that we're not using the same metric that we use for an amorphous past.
Quote:
Wright says religion in the Polynesian culture began to assume a rudimentary moral dimension. There was no fear of eternal punishment in the afterlife, but there was fear of being punished in this life. A murderer might be haunted by the ghost of his victim, but he can make amends by building three houses, one for the victim's kin, one for his servants, and one for his bones (pg. 57). In this example, a superstitious fear of ghosts is supplied with a specific cure—build houses. You can see the beginnings of a religious tenet here. If you offend an unearthly spirit you can still make amends. During the hunter-gatherer phase and in the age of the chiefdoms, religion is still fairly nebulous and unstructured, but as religion evolves it becomes more structured. You would have to convince me how this is any kind of improvement. I suspect it is just a consequence of a more complex society.

I think Wright also thinks that the complexity of the societies (nothing more than population growth?) created the hierarchies of gods, illustrating his main point that religions change according to the facts on the ground. It wasn't an improvement in itself, but Wright puts it as a way-station to a god that did encompass morality (even if, as with the early Jewish God, the morality is restricted to the in-group). Wright's belief is that the complexity of society made necessary the removal of the punishing or threatening function from the humans themselves to the deities.

In the background of our discussion is a matter that has caused some controversy in the past here on BT, and that is whether the good things that may be said to have come out of religion are owing to religion, or are just due to humanism winning out. The view of the side that holds religion to be regrettable usually is that its influence had to wane before any progress could come about. Wright has said several times that it's not like that, that religion is the base for everything else. He believes that cultural evolution mimics species evolution, so it's no surprise that he would think this way. And perhaps it can't be both ways, that culture evolves along the lines of natural selection, yet moral progress can be of its own, independent creation.
Quote:
Since we are talking about the moral dimension of religion, it may be relevant to look at Kohlberg's stages of moral development. Kohlberg developed a theory that delineates moral reasoning into six distinct cognitive stages.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kohlberg's ... evelopment

Level 1 (Pre-Conventional)
1. Obedience and punishment orientation
(How can I avoid punishment?)
2. Self-interest orientation
(What's in it for me?)

Level 2 (Conventional)
3. Interpersonal accord and conformity
(Social norms)
(The good boy/good girl attitude)
4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation
(Law and order morality)

Level 3 (Post-Conventional)
5. Social contract orientation
6. Universal ethical principles
(Principled conscience)

What's important to understand, I think, is that these are stages of development, meaning that you have to pass through Level I to get to Level II and so on. It's a progression. I would think that morality at the state level would also have to pass through stages of development and that different societies will progress at different times. That's why you would see Captain Cook being appalled at the idea of human sacrifice in Polynesia because 18th century England, despite its tax prisons, was much more advanced culturally and morally. And here in the West in 2010 it's appalling to think that in some Islamic cultures, stoning is still practiced. On the other hand, we still have capital punishment and I'm not sure the psychological torture of being a dead man walking is any better than being stoned to death. But that's another discussion.

Thanks for bringing this in. It's interesting to see if Kohlberg's stages can be applied to societies. At least the first 3, maybe also the 4th, depend on brain maturation to develop, so they would be present in all societies regardless of time. Stage 5 surely existed from earliest times as well. As for stage 6, that's the one that Wright would say humanity needed to get to--and still needs to get to--through cultural evolution. Religions are often a barrier to that, but Wright says they may end up being a vehicle for it.



Last edited by DWill on Sun Sep 12, 2010 10:25 pm, edited 1 time in total.



Sun Sep 12, 2010 10:21 pm
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