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The Idea That Launched a Thousand Civilisations (2012) [pdf] (ubc.ca)
46 points by tokenadult 1609 days ago | hide | past | web | 52 comments | favorite

I think the transition in human history from the age of Gilgamesh to the Homeric Epics and The Old Testament was very abrupt. Gilgamesh described a relatively peaceful society without much focus on lineage and vengeance where the characters were at times remorseful for being violent toward monsters they met in the forest for example. The Homeric epics and The Old Testament in contrast are filled with constant warfare, and brutality and a pathological focus on lineage. Has anyone else noticed this? It's not something that would have ever occurred to me without actually reading a lot of ancient literature.

I think it's more likely that you are underestimating the violence, vengeance, and warfare of ancient Mesopotamia than human history got more violent, especially given the art we have available for Mesopotamia (vs. literature) for that period.

Gilgamesh described a world in which men and gods were equally capricious, and the strong took everything from the weak justly by virtue of their strength, justly, because there was no concept of justice (again, only divine caprice.)

There was a concept of justice, if the pre-socratics are to be believed (and if their view reflected the earlier views - which I conjecture it did). Thrasymachus (the Sophist) gives his understanding of justice and injustice as "justice is what is advantageous to the stronger, while injustice is to one's own profit and advantage". So you are right in saying that "the strong took everything from the weak justly by virtue of their strength" but this was seen as justice being done (the weak having no right to do anything about it. Might makes right, the law of the jungle, pre-Axial Age justice.

The Homeric epics and the Old Testament are both much, much larger works in terms of scope. You'd be better off comparing Gilgamesh to the Book of Job, or the Book of Ruth, or the Book of Esther, or something.

Interesting. Personally I conceive of the former, forest-dwelling example not as an older or distinct example but of a society with greater resources living in a more abundant part of the planet, perhaps primarily through settled agriculture. An environment of plenty, where the family and the group is more at the fore. Historically, perhaps occuring from Turkey to the west at the north of the Mediterranean. Wealthy lands in natural terms.

The later warmaking, by contrast, is an arid and inherently more competitive environment born of the Abrahamic old-world; with water-resources and petty states established under centralized, kingly rule, periodically extracting the ultimate taxation from their subjects by warmaking. I am by no means a scholar of that region's history but I perceive this model as carrying on primarily between Central Asia and the north-west of the Indian subcontinent in the east, to the easternmost edge of the Mediterranean in the west.

The world of Gilgamesh seems very sparsely populated and almost lonely. Perhaps this was why they were more peaceful.

To be fair it does sound a lot like evolution with civilisations as the unit of reproduction. Not getting wiped out by the war-like tribe next door is pretty much the only metric for survival. All the other stuff like self induced climate change is for long term civilisations

Although I do tend to look on these civilisations as being run by the bully at school who was beaten up by his dad and had no real idea why he was angry so much. If he was big clever and angry he could take over a tribe pretty quick and self select.

"Civilization requires persistent and widespread violence"



I see religions mostly as Conway's game of life - blips of colors fighting for territory using various ways, sometimes removing the competition, sometimes behing destroyed by competition, sometimes dying by themselves, etc.

It's like competition in a soul market :-)

But in what they do, they seem push humanity forward, to give a reason, a hope.

Yet I would be worried if a religion achieved dominant status (monopoly) in a way that could be used to eradicate newcomers and innovation.

We already have an oligopoly - see the problems it makes on a worldwide scale.

> But in what they do, they seem push humanity forward, to give a reason, a hope.

I'd argue that the surviving religions are more like the strongest viruses of the mind, not really the most useful mutations for society. You could look at the progress of societies and religions as the co-evolution of hosts and parasites, rather than of a single species acquiring useful new features :)

A good parasite never kills its host.

I'd say the truth is somewhere in between. Religions were a useful adaption. But after being supplanted by more useful mind viruses (like philosophy, which is itself becoming outdated; or formal justice systems), then their utility no longer mattered - just their ability to cling on.

Philosophy predates a fair amount of religion, and actually encompasses it. And by definition it can't become outdated (as it's the pursuit of knowledge).

> A good parasite never kills its host.

That depends very much on how easy it is to find new hosts.

The formal justice system is based on the Talmud. It's filled with "case studies" of edge cases that were used to set precedent of interpretation.

Because what we really need right now is a "formal justice systems are a Jewish conspiracy" meme going around.

That is the basis of my favorite book, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.

From Wikipedia: The book presents the Sumerian language as the firmware programming language for the brainstem, which is supposedly functioning as the BIOS for the human brain. According to characters in the book, the goddess Asherah is the personification of a linguistic virus, similar to a computer virus. The god Enki created a counter-program which he called a nam-shub that caused all of humanity to speak different languages as a protection against Asherah (a re-interpretation of the ancient Near Eastern story of the Tower of Babel).

>>But in what they do, they seem push humanity forward, to give a reason, a hope.

Do they? How can you tell? Maybe they actually slow humanity's progress.

Look at societies that haven't transitioned from tribal kinship identities and belief systems. Their lifestyle has changed little in thousands of years.

That doesn't imply anything positive about religion, just that some tribes with and without "religion" reached a stable lifestyle early and aren't motivated to progress.

It implies religion was a necessary condition for progress.

No, it implies that religion was a sufficient condition for progress.


Then show a counter example without religion in the equation.

> But in what they do, they seem push humanity forward, to give a reason, a hope.

They were the best way to do this in the past, but we have better reasons to hope now: The world is comprehensible and our efforts to understand it meaningfully improve our lives, leading to meaningful improvements in our selves. We are, on the whole, less violent now than we were through most of our history, and there is reason to hope this will continue.


I don't agree with the assumption that religion is obviously man-made. Another possibility is that religion is a response to something that is actually out there. Primitive societies' interaction with the spirits is usually fear of the spirits and/or trying to control/manipulate the spirits to get what they want which they are unable to provide themselves. One explanation is that they act out of ignorance. Another explanation is that they act out of some sort of knowledge that we have written off.

Furthermore, religions claim to have a revelation of truth not discoverable by the western, Enlightenment-based assumptions that the world consists of only the physical reality. There could actually be a spiritual reality, and one of the religions might actually be correct. For example, I personally think that the Christian worldview that we are all selfish (in opposition to God, who is giving, since he needs nothing) explains a lot of things: poverty, oppression, why we can't stop fighting among ourselves, why communes fail, among others.

Religion might just be made up; some certainly seem to be. But, it might also be that some are actually right, and if one of them is right, it might have profound implications on how we live our lives. For example, if there really is a God who loves us so much that he died so that we could eternally relate to him as a child deeply loved by a father, we do ourselves a disservice by assuming that it is just made up. Christianity might be wrong, some other truth claim might be right, but until we have established that religions do not reflect reality, we should at least remain open to that possibility.

> one of the religions might actually be correct

How would you propose that we set about determining which religion or mythology is "correct"?

> until we have established that religions do not reflect reality, we should at least remain open to that possibility.

The burden of proof is on the religious. If they can offer testable, reproducible proof that a religion makes valid predictions in specific circumstances, and explains how the universe operates, then they should do so. Once they have, we can call it "science".

In the meantime, as Christopher Hitchens said, "that which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence."

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs, not extraordinary rationalizations that would allow us to continue believing.

For example, if there really is a God who loves us so much that he died so that we could eternally relate to him as a child deeply loved by a father, we do ourselves a disservice by assuming that it is just made up.

If such a being does exist, it's fatally damaged any relationship we might have had by never being present in my life.

We all need to be told that someone, somewhere loves us. Some of us had bad relationships with our fathers. But by attributing this to an invisible man, we're not really sharing it with the people who do love us. And finding someone else to call "father" isn't dealing with my own daddy issues.

> One explanation is that they act out of ignorance. Another explanation is that they act out of some sort of knowledge that we have written off.

The first explanation has served us amazingly well and continues to do so. The second explanation would require either that the designed universe we happen to find ourselves in behaves exactly like a universe that came about by blind adherence to natural laws, which is a coincidence so massive it would require a massive amount of evidence to demonstrate, or that the universe was perfectly designed to appear the product of blind natural laws, in which case it is pointless to act as if there is a supernatural plan.

Interesting study http://religions.pewforum.org/reports suggesting that there is a correlation between religion and birth rate, the obvious conclusion is that religious people are more traditional. Another explanation is that as humans evolved the ability to have rational thought, there needed to be a mechanism to for people to feel that there was something larger than themselves, otherwise, through sheer reason one would conclude that having children would decrease their chance of individual survival. ,Although, hormones probably also contribute to the suspension of reason at times as well.

I wonder how much that has to do with religious groups' dislike for contraception and their leaders' urging followers to maximize reproduction.

Google "quiverfull" if you haven't heard of it. It's an extreme position, but ideologically consistent with much of organized religion.

I hadn't heard that term before, but it's exactly what I meant.

There's an interesting article that analyzes this topic from the perspective of growing a thriving civilization if you were a leader.


Interesting article, thanks for sharing.

In particular I liked the numerous little tidbits such as Even subtle exposure to drawings resembling eyes encourages good behaviour towards strangers.

Perhaps changing the title to something more grabbing might help to generate interest, eg. "Hacking Society: Religion and Surveillance".

I wonder what the impact is of reddit's look of disapproval: ಠ_ಠ?

A little off-topic, but I'm very impressed that when I selected, copied, and pasted the emoticon into a Google search, Google gave me the explanation of the emoticon


as the top search result.

I am also impressed but less surprised. Once you surpass a certain basic level of search functionality with a monolingual frame of reference, you realise that you are going to have to tackle such things; for example to facilitate foreign language or mathematical search. Anything that exceeds such-and-such a frequency as a 'word' object is going to be treated as such, even if its traditionally-framed linguistic provenance is unknown.

DuckDuckGo has the same top result.

In Guns Germs and Steel Jared Diamond states that "civilization is the result of a chain of developments, each made possible by certain preconditions." Interestingly religion never was one of those preconditions.

Religion seems more an emergent property of human experience. Or should I say "spirituality" out of which religion emerges.

I wonder if this is the best place to put it, but one of the better books I read on religion (named literally: Religion explained) did a multi-factor approach to religion and is one of the better books I've read on this subject.

Some of the reasons:

1) We're hard wired to remember and transmit some types of information - Want to remember the X different types of blood vessels? Hard problem. Want to remember a story about a mountain that eats people? Much Easier

2) Religion and religious structures provide order

3) Religious systems explain and help handle death

4) They provide a form of control against randomness (pray and your child will not die.)

5) Religious systems as social moderators and interaction protocols

6) Act as the super set for superstition and offer explanations and systems to handle unexplained events.

I may have missed or mixed a few points, (Its been a while.)

ALL these reasons combined, ensure that religion will be always be created, and it fills, or ends up filling, multiple key niches human beings encounter

And finally because of our internal wiring, we will always end up remembering and building on these traditions.

So as you say, religion for many reasons really is an emergent property of human existence.

Faith always helped people in hard times, and it gave an opportunity to explain things (like natural disasters) that the science couldn't explain then. Indeed religion is an important part of human's history, but what really launched civilizations was the imagination (which leads to creativity).

"While atheists think of their disbelief as a private matter of conscience, believers treat their absence of belief in supernatural surveillance as a threat to cooperation and honesty".

Yeesh, that's sort of an insulting (and rather broad) conclusion to draw about religious people. It seems akin to saying "Religious people are too simple-minded to understand the concept of morality; They can only conceive of good behavior enforced by the threat of torture/violence/all the other stuff that hell entails."

Are you arguing that it's false, or merely stating that it's not a nice thing to say?

Well I wouldn't presume to say whether it's false or true; just that it's a pretty damning conclusion, if true.

Some of the other articles from the "God Issue" can be found here: http://www.forteantimes.com/forum/viewtopic.php?p=1199197...

If religion were a glue to bind disparate people, wouldn't religious communes prove successful while secular ones failed? Yet both types fail.

Communes are a tribal configuration. Religion is a source of success because it lets people expand beyond tribal society.

It's a way of extending the "tribe" to large numbers of strangers?

Tribes max out in size around 50 people. They also tend to participate in tribal warfare with those not of their kin. Religion lets people join together around a common belief rather than a common bloodline.

The article makes it clear that religious ones lasted much longer.

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