Friday, May 27, 2005

Is Religion a Force for Good in History?

First a few qualifications:

  • I am a Weak Agnostic and my sympathies lie towards Atheism.
  • I do suspect that religion might be, for better or for worse, approaching its use-by-date.
  • Religion has played a constant role in human history and I can only take specific examples that illustrate its persistent and fundamental quality as a supreme organisational tool. If this was a contest of how many examples each side can bring to the table, then we will be here for quite a long time.
  • It may be true that if we were to only look at history since the Age of Enlightenment, religion’s counter productive influences have become increasingly prevalent and steadily negating the impact of the positive role it had played till then.
  • This has become all the more evident with the changes of the 19th and 20th centuries (I can find no adjective to sufficiently describe the vastness and sheer speed at which these changes occurred).

But if we take a look at history from the beginnings of civilisation, then yes, I do think religion has been, on balance, a positive force and overwhelmingly so.

Allow me to focus on the development of society in pre-Islamic Middle East and Arabia to illustrate, chiefly because I am not completely ignorant about this particular region. Secondly because I have Lapidus’s definitive textbook: “History of Islamic Societies” on my bookshelf and I can quote it liberally. Thirdly, I felt that some of the events provide interesting parallels to the situation we are in now.

Beginning at the era of hunting and gathering communities, we know that they were organised around small familial units. With the advent of agriculture and domestication of animals they start living in tribes of nomadic pastoralists or in agricultural communities.

As these communities grew, the interactions between them became more frequent, especially with the nomads travelling from one agrarian village to another. Customs and beliefs were shared along with the goods and more than one community began worshipping the same Gods.

Motivated by their shared commitment to the service of these Gods, pastoral villages grouped into temple communities. For example the Sumerians believed that the lands they inhabited were the property of the Gods and that they were obligated to create temples in appreciation. They couldn’t do this if the villages didn’t co-operate.

Thus the city-state is born. This was revolutionary in terms of cultural progress. Constructing temples required administration and organization of previously unheard-of quantities of labour. Supporting professions such as artisans and sculptors began to ply their trade. Writing and trade customs were developed. Specialisation of skills and integration of labour meant that the cities became centres of economic growth and individuals experienced a jump in their standard of living.

It is no coincidence that the priests of the temples were also the city’s lawmakers and political leaders. In those formative periods, belief in the divine authority was essential to maintain the stability and security within the society.

Then came the empires. The first empire of the world was created in 2400 BC by Sargon of Akkad in Northern Mesopotamia. As Empires rose and fell, and each created its own imprint on the landscape. Over time Kings replaced priests as the primary mediators between heaven and earth. Quoting Lapidus (2002):

In Middle Eastern conceptions, kingship was justified as the expression of the divine plan for the ordering of human societies. Sacralized political power, as well as religious community, became a vehicle for the unification of disparate communities.
Empires became the new black:
For ancient peoples, the empires symbolised the realm of civilisation. The function of empires was to defend the civilised world against the barbarians and to assimilate them into the sphere of higher culture. For their part, the barbarians, mostly nomadic peoples, wanted to conquer empires, share in their wealth and sophistication, and win for themselves the status of civilized men. Empires commanded allegiance because they were a coalition of civilised peoples against the darkness without. They commanded allegiance because kingship was though of as a divine institution and the king was a divinely selected agent, a person who, if not himself a god, shared in the aura, magnificence, sacredness, and mystery of the divine. The ruler was God’s agent, his priest, the channel between this world and the heavens, designated by the divine being to bring justice and right order to men so that they might in turn serve God. The king thus assured the prosperity and well being of his subjects. Magically he upheld the order of the universe against chaos.
Leaving Mesopotamia, let’s travel forward to the beginning of 6th century Arabia and to a city called Mecca:
Mecca was one of the most complex and heterogenous places in Arabia. Here society had grown beyond the limitations of the clan and tribe to afford some complexity of political and economic ties. Mecca was one of the few places in Arabia to have a floating, non-tribal population of individual exiles, refugees, outlaws, and foreign merchants. The very presence of different peoples and clans – people belonging to no clan, foreigners, people with diverse religious convictions, differing views of life’s purposes and values – moved Meccans away from the old tribal religions and moral conceptions. New conceptions of personal worth and social status and new social relationships were fostered in this more complex society. On the positive side, the imperatives of commercial activity, and Arabia-wide contacts and identifications set individuals free from the traditions of their clans and allowed for the flourishing of self-conscious, critical people, who were capable of experimenting with new values… On the negative side, society suffered from economic competition, social conflict, and moral confusion. Commercial activities brought in their wake social stratification on the basis of wealth, and morally inassimilable discrepancies between individuals situations and the imperatives of clan loyalty...

Arabia was in ferment; a society in the midst of constructive political experiments was endangered by anarchy; strong clan and tribal powers threatened to overwhelm the fragile forces of agricultural stability, commercial activity, and political cohesion.

And it was into this that Muhammad was born. His book and his monotheistic God re-establishes the cohesive society, halts the decline of Arabia and Middle East and by the twelfth century, Islam had taken the region to the forefront of civilisation. It is also useful to note that when the Mongols destroyed Saljuq Empire in 1243, religious conviction of the Islamic refugees and their desire to fight the infidels of Byzantine led to the creation of that small frontier principality in the mountainous regions of Anatolia under the rulership of Ertugrul. His son Osman will of course start a series of conquests that will eventually result in the Ottoman Empire.

One could point out that all these wars and death and destruction were all the result of religious dogmatism. I would counter that by saying without religions there wouldn’t even be a civilisation to fight these wars with. In fact wars themselves are an evidence of the tremendous organisational capability of religion. There is even a possibility that due to this benefit, spirituality is an adaptive biological trait in humans. If it has the power to get someone to go out there and sacrifice his own life, then one cannot underestimate its power in convincing a person to live a moral life.

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