It’s no real coincidence that the standard metaphor for approaching gods is one of height. Humans not only defer to those who are “above” them in the social hierarchy, they also tend to defer to people who are literally taller than they are. Taller individuals tend to have higher status and better pay, and this generalises away from western society. Even the status of women is in part due to their smaller stature than males – when height is corrected for, women tend not to be different in status, although this doesn’t mean taller women get better pay. An insult to another is to call them a “little” person, and we call a high status person a “great” person. We “look up” to leaders.
Not coincidentally also; we “look up” to priests, divine agents, and of course, gods themselves.
Suppose you are a king of one of the first civilisations (city-based political entities) after the rise of agriculture. Your populace is composed of many villages, probably of many cultures. Your social structure is roughly this:
Each Village Head is the top of the local hierarchy, but is subordinate to the regional governor or military leader who in turn is subordinate to the king. All well and good, but how do you as king ensure the following things: first, that the villages do not fight between themselves, and that the social order is continued when you die? The in-group/out-group distinction is maintained by local cultural, largely ritual tribal markers, such as dress, language, and so forth, so they will tend to remain coherent groups. But civil war is a likely outcome at the death of the alpha king (or queen – this is not about gender as such; I’ll use “king” here for the position not the sex) as the lieutenants (those who stand in lieu of the one who holds the land or position of authority, according to most dictionaries) strive to take the supreme position.
Supposing that the king’s heir has not yet worked up the usual status markers by combat or allegiance making, which is a fair bet if the heir’s position relies upon the alpha king’s favours to date, then the heir is unlikely to make it past the king’s funeral in any position of respect, if they survive at all. What to do?
One way is to ensure that the old king never dies, and is watching to ensure that allegiences pledged during his earthly existence are maintained afterwards (that is, after his earthly death). In other words, the king becomes a supernatural observer, punishing defectors and rewarding loyalties. This means that (and experiment has shown it to have significant, but small, effect on ethical action) the watching god is a sanction for maintaining the status quo, literally.
Now the lieutenants may not think much of the deification of a king, but the populace in general might, thus undercutting their ability to insurrect. How do you get the message of the king’s new life to that populace? One way is to have a cult, not unlike the usual ancestor cults, in which the wider family loyalties are maintained by appeasing ancestors through sacrifice and ritual. I’ll talk more about sacrifice and ritual later on, not today.
But a cult needs propagators and maintenance. So it follows that you need a secondary hierarchy, the literal hierarchy, of priests. They are the bearers of tradition, teachers of ritual, enforcers of local morals, and in fact they end up as a secondary power structure in a society. Such a secondary hierarchy has been independently developed in the ancient near east, such as Egypt, and Mesopotamia, as well as the far east in China, in Mesoamerica and of course in the European empires.
You end up with this:
Now, because this puts the king’s position in competition with the priests’, it pays to have a number of distinct cults, all of which owe their social standing to the political structure, and hence can be relied upon to defend the social order (including the inheritance of power by the heir), and so most urban societies developed multiple religious cults of various deities fairly quickly. Some of these were centred on the old king-gods. Some will be based on nature gods personified. Some will be foreign imports, like the Apollo cult in Hellenic cultures was imported from the Phoenician Apollyon cult. Some will absorb local ritual sites and their deities, the way that the Zeus cult absorbed many local “supreme” gods as Hellenic culture spread with political control.
Religion plays a central role in maintaining the cohesion of an urbanised society, made possible by agriculture, that transcends the usual kin group selection of a village, and the tribal markers that identified the edges of that group. Gods are in part, political heroes after death, sometimes kings, sometimes cultural heroes like Herakles, Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and Prometheus (although I always had a soft spot for Epimetheus, myself). Initial loyalties to a tribal god-king can become magnified as the tribe becomes an agrarian city-state and eventually an empire.
I fully agree with Loyal Rue (2005) that religion is not about god or the gods. It is, instead, about us. It is how we solve a particular set of problems as they arise when social bonds exceed traditional kin groupings. It is, in short, something that happens with a shift from foraging societies to urbanised agrarian societies and the subsequent division of social role and specialisation that follows this. Religion is one, not the only, solution to social cohesion.
Gods act as high status individuals who enforce the alliances made by a certain ape. Religion is what happens when apes get symbolic language and agriculture, and if you gave these to chimpanzees, I would expect they’d have a religion very soon thereafter. This means that I restrict the term religion to those politically related structures, institutions and rituals that parallel the martial hierarchy in such an urbanised society. Shamanism and animism (and ancestor worship) in tribal societies doesn’t count as religion on my version, because there’s really no way to distinguish the social rituals of religion from those of hunting, trading, political structure and in-group/out-group tribal marking.
Incidentally, the origin of religion in this sense doesn’t mean that religion itself cannot be further shaped by social evolution. Monument building, such as the stone circles of northwestern Europe in the late Paleolithic; the pyramid construction, and so forth, all have basically the same problem as religion does as the target for which they are a solution – social cohesion. It is to be expected then that religion will be engaged in these enterprises too. It even follows that if a substantial ethnic subgroup wish to break free of the status quo, their own religious traditions will in part act to justify and inspire rebellion. But fndamentally, in times of relative stability, religions are a way to maintain the status quo in large scale populations, of several thousand individuals or more, right up to the tens of millions that are normal these days.
The current “World Religions” are, in fact, the eccentric and unusual forms of religion, not the typical or exemplary forms, and drawing conclusions from, say, the religion of the anthropologists’ culture to those of the past or different cultures is a kind of cultural imperialism in itself, as evidenced by the categories of those who first set up the problem of the origin of religion in the 19th century. But in fact they stand in need of special explanation, and I would suggest tentatively now they are the products of empire, and the subsequent need to regularise social conventions for trade over very large distances. If you meet a trader from central Asia, and you are from Spain, say, then it helps to ensure that the trade will be fair and the contracts kept, if your deity and theirs are roughly the same kind of god. Even better if you are both Muslim or Christian, and much better still if you are both Shiite or Catholic.
Thus ends my summary of views. I will of course continue to discuss the details and special case studies (for instance, the Varna system of Hindu social order is an intriguing case study in which social and ethnic hierarchies have become coextensive, more or less), but the principles are now out there.
Rue, Loyal D. 2005. Religion is not about God: how spiritual traditions nurture our biological nature and what to expect when they fail. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
©2009 John S. Wilkins. All rights reserved.