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Ch. 4 - Gods of the Ancient States 
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Post Ch. 4 - Gods of the Ancient States
Ch. 4 - Gods of the Ancient States



Sun Aug 15, 2010 11:13 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 4 - Gods of the Ancient States
geo prompted me to move this post to the correct chapter thread.

Wright puts a large amount of information into his chapters. Maybe, if anyone wants to comment on Chapter 3, it would be helpful to have a list of the hallmarks of religion during this phase of social development.

--At the beginning of the era of state societies in Mesopotamia, there was not much evidence of an ethical base in the assortment of gods. Their god-ness seemed to give them license to act as badly as they wanted. But there was a heavy emphasis on punishments they could hand out to mortals for even the most minor of infractions. These are the early form of ethical guidelines.

--It seemed to Clement, an early church father, that there was a sharp divide between polytheistic religions and monotheism, that one was so different from the other that there could have never been any relatedness. But that was only the appearance of things from Clement's vantage point in the Second century BCE. In fact, Wright says, these early states did develop the elements that characterize modern religion--monotheism, an ethical core and universalism--only they didn't arrive at sustained forms or put them all together.

--Law, both domestic and international, was put into the hands of the deities. (We can still see remnants of this today, in taking oaths on the Bible or Koran and the invocation of God in the U.S. state constitutions.)

--When another state was conquered, its gods were rarely deposed. They either joined the pantheon of the conquerers or were folded into existing gods through the process known as syncretism.

--As states began to incorporate other cultures or to come into close association through trade, their gods began to speak of the moral compass now including not just the state's own ethnic core, but other groups as well. This is the beginning of universalism.

--The pyramidal structure that the pantheon began to assume--one god at the top--was itself a step toward monotheism.

--The Mesopotamian god Marduk is the earliest example of the move towards an exclusive god. He was not only the supreme god but the only one. Other gods became mere aspects of him.

--Wright stresses political/economic realities--the facts on the ground--as having the biggest role in this movement towards monotheism. He mentions a different view, the "intellectualist," holding that an inherent movement in the mind of humanity towards scientific rationalism was responsible.

--Aten, in Egypt, is another example of an early god who became the one true god. He had a short reign, however.



Last edited by DWill on Tue Sep 14, 2010 7:43 am, edited 2 times in total.



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Post Re: Ch. 4 - Gods of the Ancient States
As DWill pointed out, this chapter covers a lot of material. I'd like to paraphrase some of it while getting to my point.

Wright shows how the polytheism of hunter-gatherers and chiefdoms has begun to move towards monotheism. I found it very interesting to read about the many ways gods of different cultures got merged when societies clashed, either in combat or in commerce. Wright says those who conquer typically did not reject the conquered people's gods. Alexander the Great, for example, embraced the gods of those he vanquished, and likewise, when Greece was conquered by the Romans, their gods only underwent name changes: Aphrodite to Venus, Zeus to Jupiter, etc.

Wright says: "The melding of religious beliefs or concepts—"syncretism"—is a common way to to forge cultural unity in the wake of conquest, and often, as here, what gets melded is the gods themselves. . . . In the polytheistic world, a savvy conqueror was a theologically flexible conqueror." (85)

And here we go back to the functionalist/Marxist debate about the role of religion. The functionalists see religion as serving the interests of society as a whole. And the Marxists see it as a tool of the government to control the masses. Wright doesn't see this as a dichotomy, per se, and it seems apparent that both arguments are true to some extent. The malleability of polytheism works both ways, "as a handy tool for ruthless imperialists" and an "elixir of intercultural amity." (85)

This seems to be one of the major theses of this book, that religious belief begins to define larger and larger groups of people as part of a widening circle of moral consideration and that our concept of God has evolved with it. This chapter goes a long way to supporting this idea. I think Wright makes a pretty strong case for it. Do others feel the same way? As for the notion that our concept of God has evolved over time, is that in question at all?

Edit: I deleted a paragraph because I think I need to clarify a few things. I'll repost later.


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Post Re: Ch. 4 - Gods of the Ancient States
geo wrote:
This seems to be one of the major theses of this book, that religious belief begins to define larger and larger groups of people as part of a widening circle of moral consideration and that our concept of God has evolved with it. This chapter goes a long way to supporting this idea. I think Wright makes a pretty strong case for it. Do others feel the same way?


Yes, in my reading this is the main thesis of The Evolution of God. But, the problem is that in encompassing a wider circle, the concept of God became more expedient. Saffron earlier raised the problem of the absence of gender from Wright's interpretation of theology. My feeling is that this lack of discussion of gender may reflect Wright's Baptist roots. An alternative equally legitimate reading of the evolution of God could see change from an earlier accurate spiritual mythology, seeing the intrinsic purpose in all of nature at a time when men and women were largely equal, to an expedient useful patriarchal concept able to serve as a glue for empires. If we see the change from tribes to kingdoms as evolutionary progress, then this widening circle for God appears also as progress. However, there is also a conflicting story of human history, as a fall from divine grace. By this story, the emergence of monotheism can be seen like a stopgap, after the loss of the earlier identification with nature in ancient prehistoric equal communities, but before a reconciliation in which the concepts of monotheism will be reconciled with nature.



Mon Sep 13, 2010 9:38 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 4 - Gods of the Ancient States
Robert Tulip wrote:
Yes, in my reading this is the main thesis of The Evolution of God. But, the problem is that in encompassing a wider circle, the concept of God became more expedient. Saffron earlier raised the problem of the absence of gender from Wright's interpretation of theology. My feeling is that this lack of discussion of gender may reflect Wright's Baptist roots. An alternative equally legitimate reading of the evolution of God could see change from an earlier accurate spiritual mythology, seeing the intrinsic purpose in all of nature at a time when men and women were largely equal to an expedient useful patriarchal concept able to serve as a glue for empires. If we see the change from tribes to kingdoms as evolutionary progress, then this widening circle for God appears also as progress. However, there is also a conflicting story of human history, as a fall from divine grace. By this story, the emergence of monotheism can be seen like a stopgap, after the loss of the earlier identification with nature in ancient prehistoric equal communities, but before a reconciliation in which the concepts of monotheism will be reconciled with nature.

That's something to think about. I haven't read what Saffron and perhaps you have read about what we know about gender relations in prehistory. This means I am unable to decide one way or the other. I don't see any necessary condition in h-g society that would create gender equality, so I have to hold this type of Golden Age perspective as for me unproven. What myths on the fall from divine grace place men and women on equal footing before the fall? Similarly, that an identification with nature was a more enlightened state appears to be a supposition. The identification with nature manifested in irrational beliefs in gods everywhere, beliefs that don't clearly amount to either "accurate spiritual mythology" or knowing a purpose in nature.



Tue Sep 14, 2010 8:11 am
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Post Re: Ch. 4 - Gods of the Ancient States
Robert Tulip wrote:
geo wrote:
This seems to be one of the major theses of this book, that religious belief begins to define larger and larger groups of people as part of a widening circle of moral consideration and that our concept of God has evolved with it. This chapter goes a long way to supporting this idea. I think Wright makes a pretty strong case for it. Do others feel the same way?


Yes, in my reading this is the main thesis of The Evolution of God. But, the problem is that in encompassing a wider circle, the concept of God became more expedient. Saffron earlier raised the problem of the absence of gender from Wright's interpretation of theology. My feeling is that this lack of discussion of gender may reflect Wright's Baptist roots. An alternative equally legitimate reading of the evolution of God could see change from an earlier accurate spiritual mythology, seeing the intrinsic purpose in all of nature at a time when men and women were largely equal, to an expedient useful patriarchal concept able to serve as a glue for empires. If we see the change from tribes to kingdoms as evolutionary progress, then this widening circle for God appears also as progress. However, there is also a conflicting story of human history, as a fall from divine grace. By this story, the emergence of monotheism can be seen like a stopgap, after the loss of the earlier identification with nature in ancient prehistoric equal communities, but before a reconciliation in which the concepts of monotheism will be reconciled with nature.


I had not thought of the gender equality aspect of it, Robert. But this goes along with some notes I wrote down while reading this chapter.

At one point Wright discusses how the pantheons began to resemble the hierarchal structure of the city-state. Frequently there was a head god and his subordinate gods, a "pyramid of powers." In Mesopotamia, in Egypt, and in China, the gods reflected the power structures of an increasingly complex and bureaucratized society.

Wright says: "As on earth, so in heaven."

The bureaucratized structure of organized religion probably reached its apex with the Roman Catholic Church with the Pope at the top—supposedly descended in a direct line from Jesus—and the bishops, and priests in supporting roles. Truly a pyramid structure.

And this is an aspect of religion that I find particularly reprehensible. Precisely because it so ungodly. The earlier spiritual mythology is much more at one with nature, whereas monotheism has taken us out of nature. Our fall from grace comes from the idea that we are special within the cosmos, above nature. The idea that we have dominion over the animals has been an incredibly destructive force in my opinion.

Here's what I wrote in my notes:

Our rise above the natural world was our true fall from grace and it came about through religious doctrine that is bureaucratic in structure and limiting and controlling in purpose.

Think of the example of the Polynesians making the canoe. They had deep reverence for every step of the process, from selecting the tree to cutting it down, and it imbues the canoe with solemn purpose and a respect for nature.


So, now I'm thinking back to Richard Tarnas who speculates in The Passion of the Western Mind that we may be transitioning to a new age away from patriarchal to one that is matriarchal. I'm greatly simplifying here, of course. But it is interesting to see how quickly people are moving away from organized religion, at least in America. A fast-growing segment of young people see themselves as spiritual without belonging to any church at all. Thus we see organized religion losing its monopoly (stranglehold) on our spirituality. A move towards pantheism? I think I could get behind that.


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Tue Sep 14, 2010 10:39 am
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Post Re: Ch. 4 - Gods of the Ancient States
geo wrote:
At one point Wright discusses how the pantheons began to resemble the hierarchal structure of the city-state. Frequently there was a head god and his subordinate gods, a "pyramid of powers." In Mesopotamia, in Egypt, and in China, the gods reflected the power structures of an increasingly complex and bureaucratized society.

Wright says: "As on earth, so in heaven."

The bureaucratized structure of organized religion probably reached its apex with the Roman Catholic Church with the Pope at the top—supposedly descended in a direct line from Jesus—and the bishops, and priests in supporting roles. Truly a pyramid structure.

I'm not sure it makes any difference, but it might be worth noting that the church bureaucracy grew independently of the 'heavenly' bureaucracy, which was truncated after the one God came about. There were a bunch of angels up there, and cherubim and seraphim, but these seemed to be lower-order functionaries without a specific job title. Wright speculates that they were what remained after the other pantheon gods were jettisoned.
Quote:
And this is an aspect of religion that I find particularly reprehensible. Precisely because it so ungodly. The earlier spiritual mythology is much more at one with nature, whereas monotheism has taken us out of nature. Our fall from grace comes from the idea that we are special within the cosmos, above nature. The idea that we have dominion over the animals has been an incredibly destructive force in my opinion.

Here's what I wrote in my notes:

Our rise above the natural world was our true fall from grace and it came about through religious doctrine that is bureaucratic in structure and limiting and controlling in purpose.

Think of the example of the Polynesians making the canoe. They had deep reverence for every step of the process, from selecting the tree to cutting it down, and it imbues the canoe with solemn purpose and a respect for nature.

This is an attractive idea, and it's possible that no change, even if it might be an advance, comes without a cost. But I doubt there is any way at all that humans could have discovered science while remaining tied to beliefs in the supernatural such as the ones animating the boat builders. They were also following religion (even if they couldn't describe it). We can then take an other-side-of-the-coin approach and look at some social practices, animated by similar beliefs, that we wouldn't find as admirable as building a good boat.

As for our attitude of being above nature, how do we know if it is ideas such as that which fueled our conquering of nature, or something more like "facts on the ground" or "material circumstance" (both favorite phrases of Wright) that are responsible? The idea would then be more like a by-product of or a mask for what really did the controlling. Wright poses a related general question at the beginning of Chapter 6, but only to make clear that he favors the facts on the ground explanation of why religious doctrine changes. This is why, though I hesitate to mention the word, Wright's approach seems to me most un-memic.



Last edited by DWill on Tue Sep 14, 2010 11:46 am, edited 1 time in total.



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Post Re: Ch. 4 - Gods of the Ancient States
geo wrote:
This seems to be one of the major theses of this book, that religious belief begins to define larger and larger groups of people as part of a widening circle of moral consideration and that our concept of God has evolved with it. This chapter goes a long way to supporting this idea. I think Wright makes a pretty strong case for it. Do others feel the same way? As for the notion that our concept of God has evolved over time, is that in question at all?


Is your question:

1) That a major theme of the book is that religious belief defines larger and larger groups? or

2) That religious belief defines larger and larger groups?


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Post Re: Ch. 4 - Gods of the Ancient States
DWill wrote:
geo wrote:
Quote:
And this is an aspect of religion that I find particularly reprehensible. Precisely because it so ungodly. The earlier spiritual mythology is much more at one with nature, whereas monotheism has taken us out of nature. Our fall from grace comes from the idea that we are special within the cosmos, above nature. The idea that we have dominion over the animals has been an incredibly destructive force in my opinion.

Here's what I wrote in my notes:

Our rise above the natural world was our true fall from grace and it came about through religious doctrine that is bureaucratic in structure and limiting and controlling in purpose.

Think of the example of the Polynesians making the canoe. They had deep reverence for every step of the process, from selecting the tree to cutting it down, and it imbues the canoe with solemn purpose and a respect for nature.

This is an attractive idea, and it's possible that no change, even if it might be an advance, comes without a cost. But I doubt there is any way at all that humans could have discovered science while remaining tied to beliefs in the supernatural such as the ones animating the boat builders. They were also following religion (even if they couldn't describe it). We can then take an other-side-of-the-coin approach and look at some social practices, animated by similar beliefs, that we wouldn't find as admirable as building a good boat.


Yes, I realize how much I'm idealizing the primitive mindset, preferring to focus on the Avatar-esque oneness with nature, and forgetting the human sacrifices and other practices that we would surely find barbaric. So you're right, that there was another side of that coin that is not nearly so attractive.

More and more I'm seeing the need to separate the "supersense" that we are born with--the sense of something greater than ourselves--and religion which typically takes a bureaucratic approach to spirituality and assumes an anthropomorphic deity that is incredibly limiting. Humans have very limited sensory capabilities and thus our imagination is also very limited. Which is why it can be said that probably no one really understands quantum mechanics. To assume we can comprehend "God" seems arrogant to me. And if you look at how our concept of "God" has changed over the millennia only proves the point that "God" was created in our own image.

The Evolution of God, is probably less controversial than Dawkins' The God Delusion and other atheist books out there. Wright's unique twist, if you will, is that religion isn't really as bad as a lot of the atheists make it out to be. Wright claims that science owes a debt to religion, but once again, we need to define what is our primitive "supersense" and what is religion. Our "supersense" is what compels us to explore the world and wonder about the beauty of a flower and the mysterious nature of the sun and moon and planets and stars. Because we are storytellers we came up with stories that explain these mysteries, but due to our curious nature and blind luck we eventually stumbled upon the scientific method. And as real and empirical methods of understanding the world came to light many of our stories naturally took on a mythical dimension that illustrate more our own nature and how we perceive and understand the world. Religion, on the other hand, provides an interpretive framework for understanding the world that is inherently false. Again, simply by seeing how our concept of "God" has changed over the millennia, you can see that religious beliefs are only stories that we tell to one another until more empirical explanations come along. Religious belief, as such, is reactive to the same forces that drive culture at large--technology and science. It seems too simplistic and ultimately not very meaningful to say that science owes a debt to religion.

On the other hand, we have religious beliefs because our brains are wired to believe in something greater than us, and so we're kind of stuck with it. Perhaps we are growing up and coming to realize that religion as myth provides a useful interpretive framework, but it is probably dangerous and limiting to believe that such stories are true.


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Post Re: Ch. 4 - Gods of the Ancient States
A theme coming through this chapter is that history is written by the victors. In order to obtain social harmony in a new larger community, for example when Sargon conquered and unified ancient Iraq/Mesopotamia, he had to write history using God as a lubricant. It is similar to Orwell's comment in 1984 that when Oceania switches from war with Eurasia to war with Eastasia, this new arrangement is said to have always been the case. Similarly, Sargon says Inanna, the former Goddess of Sumer, had actually always been Ishtar, the Goddess of his homeland Akkadia. This fusion with a conquering God was a way to avoid 'needless squabbles'.

Wright calls this a 'tendency of the divine to track the political' (86), "as on earth so in heaven". Now, this is a direct inversion of the tradition of the perennial philosophy from Thoth "as above so below". Wright is basically denying that inspired revelation has any role in religion, which is either a function of social adaptation or a deceptive con by rulers. This deprecation of the role of cosmology in religious ideation indicates a supremely materialist hypothesis for the nature of religious experience. Wright sees it as "part of a natural drift towards scientific rationalism" (88), with the supreme God as "a kind of grand unified theory of nature". With the "intellectual drift technologically abetted", the old savage unpredictable Gods were no longer as plausible. Therefore he suggests "the sheerly political explanation ... what better social cement than a single God?" (89).

With transport, communication and manufacture driving the intercultural connections that demanded fusion of previous separate beliefs, it became steadily harder to ignore the existence of other people. It is fine to have two incompatible absolute beliefs in societies that have little contact, but it is untenable when these societies are politically unified. A modus vivendi is needed, written by the powerful. Babylon achieved this by subordinating defeated Gods, but Aten in Egypt tried the novel trick of completely abolishing his predecessors. This proved untenable because of the social and psychological hold of existing Gods, but set a precedent for later bigotry.

Wright uses a sardonic humour to deprecate religious cruelty, for example in his comment that "properly sacrificing hundreds of people per month isn't the kind of job you can leave to amateurs" (76). But he extends this contempt for religion with a comment that seems debatable: "claims that the gods of some civilizations were more like impersonal 'forces' than like anthropomorphic 'beings' tend not to withstand scrutiny." (74) This reminds me of Richard Dawkins' comment to the effect that Jack Spong is not a real Christian because he does not believe rubbish. It is a way of defining the evolution of faith by a predetermined condescending theory. Against Wright's comment about forces v beings, it is clear that Plato viewed the divine as a matter more of forces than of entities. Yes, Socrates was executed for this belief, but the veneration that intellectual Greeks had for Socrates and Plato indicates that their ideas had a strong social purchase. As Wright notes at the outset of Chapter 4, written records of ancient religion are fragmentary and prone to perishing (72). The concept of god as force rather than being is more philosophical than political, so it is hardly surprising that the crude public simplifications have been preserved more obviously than the esoteric philosophy. But that doesn't justify the assumption that we can easily assess the relative status of crude beliefs and sophisticated understanding. The ancients may well have been far more sophisticated than Wright gives them credit for.



Last edited by Robert Tulip on Fri Sep 17, 2010 7:32 am, edited 1 time in total.



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Post Re: Ch. 4 - Gods of the Ancient States
Robert, thank you for the summary. I am considering using your phrase-- "he had to write history using God as a lubricant"--as a signature line! Simultaneously poignant and hilarious, it sums the chapter up precisely.


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Post Re: Ch. 4 - Gods of the Ancient States
Robert Tulip wrote:
Wright calls this a 'tendency of the divine to track the political' (86), "as on earth so in heaven". Now, this is a direct inversion of the tradition of the perennial philosophy from Thoth "as above so below". Wright is basically denying that inspired revelation has any role in religion, which is either a function of social adaptation or a deceptive con by rulers. This deprecation of the role of cosmology in religious ideation indicates a supremely materialist hypothesis for the nature of religious experience. Wright sees it as "part of a natural drift towards scientific rationalism" (88), with the supreme God as "a kind of grand unified theory of nature". With the "intellectual drift technologically abetted", the old savage unpredictable Gods were no longer as plausible. Therefore he suggests "the sheerly political explanation ... what better social cement than a single God?" (89).

But we might want to remember that he's not dogmatic and openly tells us that materialism is his bias. On pp. 132-134 he does give a nod to idealism, admitting that this can influence the facts on the ground. He simply thinks it's not 50-50. How anyone makes such a determination I'm not sure. It's not done using any kind of known metric, but just one's sense of things.
Quote:
Wright uses a sardonic humour to deprecate religious cruelty, for example in his comment that "properly sacrificing hundreds of people per month isn't the kind of job you can leave to amateurs" (76). But he extends this contempt for religion with a comment that seems debatable: "claims that the gods of some civilizations were more like impersonal 'forces' than like anthropomorphic 'beings' tend not to withstand scrutiny." (74) This reminds me of Richard Dawkins' comment to the effect that Jack Spong is not a real Christian because he does not believe rubbish. It is a way of defining the evolution of faith by a predetermined condescending theory. Against Wright's comment about forces v beings, it is clear that Plato viewed the divine as a matter more of forces than of entities. Yes, Socrates was executed for this belief, but the veneration that intellectual Greeks had for Socrates and Plato indicates that their ideas had a strong social purchase. As Wright notes at the outset of Chapter 4, written records of ancient religion are fragmentary and prone to perishing (72). The concept of god as force rather than being is more philosophical than political, so it is hardly surprising that the crude public simplifications have been preserved more obviously than the esoteric philosophy. But that doesn't justify the assumption that we can easily assess the relative status of crude beliefs and sophisticated understanding. The ancients may well have been far more sophisticated than Wright gives them credit for.

You're talking about an "intellectualism" that Wright believes plays a secondary role in history. It's the basic human drives for power, wealth, security, that create change and thus most of history. The gods tended to facilitate whatever needs and ambitions were primary at a given time; philosophical beliefs couldn't do this, and Wright states or at least implies that they usually followed along in the train of social change. Esoteric philosophy being by implication always a minority view, I tend to believe Wright, even though you're correct that he doesn't try to establish this with evidence. That would require too big a digression even for him.

The review of TEoG to which geo posted a link complains that leaving a primary idealism mostly out of the picture, as Wright does, is incomplete. Not every change or advance can be explained as the seeking of non-zero sum, win-win, relationships. I think the reviewer used the example of the abolition of slavery. What practical advantage was there for anyone to care about a powerless segment of society? What facts on the ground changed to make abolition appear to be inevitable? The reviewer makes a similar point about the efforts of Paul to promote a wider brotherhood than had existed before in religion. Yes, this seemed very good for increasing the fledgling church's reach across ethnic and national lines, but can we really think of this as only a strategic ploy?



Last edited by DWill on Fri Sep 17, 2010 9:16 pm, edited 1 time in total.



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Fri Sep 17, 2010 9:15 pm
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