Re: Religion: definition of

Don Steehler (
15 Apr 1995 06:56:52 GMT

In article <>, says...
>In article <> (Gerold
Firl) writes:
>>From this perspective, religion appears first and foremost to be a system
>>for *organising* the social unit, for coordinating the actions of large
>>numbers of people.
>(I'm responding to one of my one posts - sheesh - how pathetic.)

Hi Gerold.

I'm a bit late in reading and responding to this article, but your thoughts
on the subject are (IMHO) interesting. Some comments follow.

- Regards


>One thing which I should have mentioned the first time around is that a
>religion is only needed for a culture which outgrows the inate social
>mechanisms evolved over the long period of small-band hunter-gather
>existance, during which the human instincts adapted to that particular
>social mileau. If we say that humans have been around for the last 100,000
>years (which must be considered the low-end estimate, since that is when
>*modern* h. sapiens appeared), and agriculture began 10,000 years ago, then
>90% of human history has been spent as hunter-gathers. In my opinion, it
>makes more sense to view the human race as being on the order of 1,000,000
>years old, since the roots of human biology and culture are so deeply
>planted in the folkways of h. erectus. In that case, 99% of human history
>has been spent as small-band hunter-gathers, with the last 10,000 a tiny
>addendum. In either case, it makes sense to view the instinctive human

Robin Fox develops similar arguments in _The Search for Society_.

>characteristics as adaptations to small-band existance. Maladaptive
>behavior when humans are organised into large, anonymous societies such as
>most of us live in should not be too surprising. (Note: Wilson, in _on
>human nature_, elaborates on the idea of our sociobiological roots in
>hunter-gather cultures.)
>In a small band, everyone knows everyone else. Typical primate dominance
>heirarchy-mediated relations suffice to guide social organisation. The
>advent of societies which were too large to permit everyone to know
>everyone else required the invention of social mediators which provided
>guidelines for how individuals should treat each other. Religion was the
>result. Gods are very useful as impartial arbiters of interpersonal

Not (at least originally, I believe) in Buddhism.

>disputes. In a small band, it's simple: the high-status individual wins
>when there is a conflict of interest. In a large society, an anonymous
>society, it is easy for violence to break-out when there is a conflict.
>Religion helps to prevent such problems, by imposing an *a priori*
>dominance heirarchy, or by replacing the heirarchical structure with an
>entirely different mechanism for conflict resolution, such as communitarian

How about this distinction: allocated vs. delegated authority.

authority | allocated delegated
-----------| -------------------------------------
relations | egalitarian hierarchical
politics | democratic authoritarian

In an egalitarian group, authority is allocated to individuals by group
consensus. In an hierarchical group authority is delegated by "boss"
individuals to subordinates - power politics. With this distinction,
"status" has a different meaning to the group. In democratic/egalitarian
groups "status" is derived by "agreement;" in hierarchical/authoritarian
groups "status" is enforced by "authority."

You might be interested in Margaret Power's book:

_The Egalitarians - Human and Chimpanzees: an Anthropological View of Social

>Note how important insignia of authority are; they give unambiguous,
>verifiable mark of social rank, so the heirarchy is clear, even when no
>personal knowledge is present. The social instincts of the primate
>dominance heirarchy are used largely as-is. The alternative, of trying to
>circumvent these instincts to impose a communitarian equality, is more
>difficult. It has been tried many times, but with only limited success.

Could a "controlling" factor be the relation of the group to its embedding
ecology (environment)? !Kung San foraging bands earlier this century could
be reasonably be classified as living in "communitarian equality" (sin? :-)
). But they didn't have houses, asses, etc. - they didn't have neighbors
who accumulated such "possessions (property)" for them to covet. They
didn't "really" have neighbors; they were nomadic foragers.

Peter J. Wilson's _The Domestication of the Human Species_ explores some
differences between nomadic bands and sedentary communities. His insights
may be useful for understanding why "communitarian equality" can be

>I'm kind of disappointed at the lack of response to this thread. I think
>this is important stuff, cutting-edge anthropology, if such a thing exists.
>People complain about all the nonsense spewed around the net, the endless
>arguments about racism etc, but attempts to bring up topics of significance
>sink without a trace. To make this a useful forum, we need to put-in a
>little bit of effort.
>Disclaimer claims dat de claims claimed in dis are de claims of meself,
>me, and me alone, so sue us god. I won't tell Bill & Dave if you won't.
>=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=---- Gerold Firl @ ..hplabs!hp-sdd!geroldf