Monday, 25 July 2016

Morality And Pre-Roman Civilisation in England

Field system in South Downs, England
South Downs National Park Authority
South Downs pre-Roman 'farming collective' discovered - BBC News

A little news item from southern England has been causing a flutter of excitement by posing a few questions for historians recently. It should, if properly understood, cause fundamentalist theists to ask themselves a few questions too.

The news item concerned a recent discovery that agriculture was highly organised in the immediate pre-Roman era in England. This was shown by the discovery of an extensive field system in what is now modern West Sussex and Hampshire. It was discovered using a new laser-based aerial survey technique known as LiDAR.

The significance of this is that a well-organised political structure must have been in place and the society must have been reasonably safe and secure for this level of organised agriculture to be both possible and necessary. Well organised, cooperative farming means there must be someone to eat the produce which also implies some form of distribution system.

The problem for historians is that they have no idea who these people were and very little other evidence that such a civilisation existed in immediate pre-Roman England. Their significance to the Romans was so low that they don't appear to have even recorded their existence. They seem not to have left much in the way of stone buildings either, yet they were clearly not nomadic pastoralists but settle agriculturalists normally associated with building towns.

So what has this to do with theists?

I can't have been the only one to be told that our morals come from the biblical god, either in the form of the Christian god, the Jewish god or the Muslim god. Yet, here we have a settled, apparently mostly peaceful, or at least peaceful enough, to maintain a politically organised civilisation in a society we know was not Christian, Jewish of Muslim, yet for such a civilisation to exist it must have had a common set of ethics and ethics which at least deterred killing, theft and other forms of selfish, parasitic behaviour. Of course, it doesn't rule out slavery but then nor do any of the holy books - supposedly the means by which the biblical/quranic god related these 'God-given' morals to us.

In several blog post* some time ago I pointed out that whatever religion(s) these pre-Roman inhabitants of southern England had, they would have been no less certain in their faith in them than are modern theists certain in their faith in their gods, yet we have not the slightest idea what these gods were or even whether these civilised people believe they too got their morals from them. We don't know if they obeyed these gods through fear of what they might do. We don't know whether or not they frightened their children with stories of what might happen to them if they disobeyed these gods or transgressed the rule, or whether they could pick and choose their own personal gods from amongst a pantheon of gods. In short we have no idea what their religion was nor what role it played in defining the moral code of the culture.

What we DO know however, is that the civilisation was stable, probably prosperous and peaceful enough to be settled, politically organised and productive. In essence, although technologically backward compared to modern societies, this pre-Roman English civilisation was probably no less moral than the medieval civilisations that supposedly took their morals from the biblical god in its many forms.

Of course, recognising that all civilisations have more or less the same basic moral code as one another and that Christian, Muslim and Jewish civilisations are no more moral than they were (and in many cases are possibly considerably less moral) deprives theists of the excuse to pose as the moral superior of others. After all, what's the point of being conspicuously pious and ostentatiously holier-than-thou, if you can't pretend this makes you a better person than other people, and if you can't use this as an excuse for your behaviour?



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