Friday, 4 October 2013

Religion at the Dawn of Civilisation

Hunter, gatherer… architect? Civilisation's true dawn - life - 03 October 2013 - New Scientist

This article by David Roberts in this week's New Scientist is interesting for a couple of reasons:
  • Firstly, it casts doubt on the standard model for the historical development of civilisation where it is assumed that the development of agriculture led to settled communities and the start of permanent buildings, settlements, towns, etc, and also that political organization came as a consequence of the need for these communities to be organised into something more than extended family groups with minimal division of labour.
  • Secondly, it throws a spotlight on how religious apologists, especially Bible literalists, handle this sort of information.

A team of archaeologists led by Steven Mithen of the University of Reading, Berkshire, UK, excavating a site in eastern Turkey at Wadi Faynan, specifically a hill named Göbekli Tepe, have discovered what may well be a site for religious ceremonies and ritual, complete with monuments and seating. The site itself looks as though it was deliberately buried at some point to give the Göbekli Tepe hill. It seems highly likely that the rituals practiced there may have been blood sacrifices of some sort, judging by the drainage channels running under the floor.

But what is really interesting here is that the site is 11,000 years old - which predates the earliest evidence of agriculture by some 3,000 years. So it looks as though pre-agrarian (presumably still hunter-gatherer) societies in the area may well have been both settled and organised. Organised because it requires organisation to build large, communal buildings and to have a religion requiring such a building for religious rituals.

Now, I can see religious apologists getting excited by the thought that organized religions may well have been part of the daily lives of even our earliest modern ancestors from before even farming was invented, and that they might have been the trigger for forming settled communities - around ceremonial sites, for example. But this thought is bound to set up some unpleasant cognitive dissonance in the minds of Bible-literalists as we shall see in a moment.

For anthropologists, the discovery merely raises some interesting questions about how a settled community - which implies organisation and division of labour - could sustain itself. It has always been assumed that agriculture produced a surplus of food, i.e., more food than those who produced it needed for themselves, so the surplus could go to those who performed other tasks, like making pots (for cooking and storage), building roads and buildings, governing, soldiery, full-time priests, etc, etc. But this discovery implies there was some sort of surplus from hunter-gathering - which implies a very fertile location - and that then raises the question of why agriculture was invented if food was plentiful enough.

Well, the answer to that might not be fully known yet but none of it is a bar to accepting that human society progressed from hunter-gathering, through agrarian to urban civilisation and that the discovery of agriculture played a major role in this process. It simply raises the possibility that, at least in that part of the world, building and urbanisation might have preceded agriculture because the local conditions allowed it to.

In fact, thinking about this, it makes sense that agriculture would begin in a settled community, especially if we accept that it came about almost accidentally as people discovered that seeds gathered locally, when accidentally dropped around the settlement could be harvested later with very little effort, and that some animals captured alive would breed and provide food which didn't need to be hunted. None of this could happen if the group wasn't settled in the first place. And none of it could happen if the group wasn't strong enough, and organised enough, to be able to defend its territory from other bands of hunter-gatherers and from animals.

So, although the precise details of this transition are thrown into question by this discovery, we can begin to formulate alternative hypotheses and develop new models for the growth and development of human civilisation and adjust the time-scale accordingly. New information might well cause us to rethink and reassess so we incorporate it, knowing that our new model is probably better than the old one which we can eventually discard as more knowledge is added to confirm or falsify our hypotheses.

That's how science works, why new information is never a threat and why science always progresses towards a more complete understanding.

So what about religious apologists and especially Bible literalists? How do they cope with this sort of information?

Well, when the excitement of the discovery that early civilisation might have been facilitated by religion and that early humans might have believed in gods has died down and they try to fit the rest of it into their existing model - which has the sanctity of religious dogma so can't be changed - all sorts of conflicts begin to arise.

First there is the problem with the date. Bible literalist 'know' that Earth is only 6000 years old and that it was effectively re-set about 4000 years ago, so a date in 9,000 BCE is out of the question. This fact has to be dismissed tout suite one way or another.

There are a few standard approaches here:
  • Ignore it altogether. It can't be right because it doesn't fit the 'known' facts.
  • Rubbish the science. The dating method must be wrong and/or the scientists are lying or part of a massive conspiracy. Or Satan planted the evidence.
  • God made it look that way to test our faith. He's tricky that way.

Whatever the method, the fact of the date is dismissed. The conclusion is sacred so facts have to be ignored, so lots of extraneous 'facts' have to be inserted and a straightforward, uncomplicated narrative has to be confused and hedged around with exceptions and unproven assertions to either make it fit or to dismiss it. The conclusion is sacred so the 'facts' must change.

Secondly there is the problem of whatever religion it was, it wasn't the one in the Bible so, although people at the dawn of civilisation may well have been religious, and it may well have been religions which 'caused' civilisation, it was the wrong one. As any Bible literalist will tell you, there is only one true religion - the Christian one - so all other religions are Satanic, by definition. This means Satan was behind the earliest civilisation.


Need to rewind and re-think here.

So, I'll let any Bible literalist who had the courage to stay the course to this point tell me how they handle this one. The god of the Bible obviously would not allow human civilisation to be started by people with a Satanic religion so, disregarding the embarrassment over the date, why did the god of the Bible give a false religion to the founders of human civilisation and why did they forget they were all descended from Adam and Eve through Noah?

Or was it Satan who started human civilisation?

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