Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Origins of Religion

Shades of gods


Every normal human being desires to understand and have a control over his environment or surroundings.  Science and technology are the tools that help us achieve that understanding and control.  Religion was the earliest science and ritual was its technology.

I’m continuing with my reading and interpretation of Grayling’s book introduced in my last post.  Grayling argues that the earliest science and technology were “stories, myths and supernaturalistic beliefs.” The stories, myths and beliefs gave purpose and meaning to life’s experiences.  For example, the Ramayana gave us the meaning and purpose behind the battle between good and evil.  Krishna of the Gita taught us to kill irrespective of our personal relationships so long as our duty mandates the killing.  Let’s forget for now that the same religion which evolved out of these scriptures later taught us the superiority of vegetarianism over killings of human beings.

We are discussing the origins of religion.  Grayling argues that understanding the reality around us, explaining it to others and controlling it are the original purposes of religion.  We would call such things science and technology today.  Science is about understanding the phenomena around us.  Technology is about controlling the phenomena.  What religion did was just that in the early days of mankind.  It tried to make sense of the phenomena around.

And it used technologies such as prayers, rituals and taboos.

But people’s understanding improves with greater knowledge about their environment and the phenomena in it.  Then the gods receded from friendly neighbourhoods to hostile distances like Mont Olympus or the Himalayas.  The water nymphs, wind gods and fertility goddesses receded from the Vedas to the more abstract gods of the Upanishads in India.  Similar distances were adopted by gods in other civilisations too. 

Who created such distances, however?  Gods themselves could not have done it since they were only products of human imagination or desires.  The ordinary people wouldn’t have created that distance since they would have been happy to have familiar gods at ever-ready service. 

The priests wanted the distancing between gods and the people.  Religion became a powerful tool for social control, in other words.  Priests became the rulers of people. 

Isn’t religion a powerful instrument of social control even today?  Maybe, the priests have put on new garbs.  Of politicians, for example?  Or even businessmen?  Is the politician wearing the garb of the priest and the businessman that of the politician and ...?

I’m still learning about that from Grayling.  More will follow.


[I have taken much liberty in interpreting what Grayling has written in his book, The God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism, while writing this blog post.  This is not a review.  These are my reflections as I go ahead reading the book.]



23 comments:

  1. I saw ur post flashing on indivine and went a little excited to read! so i am the first one to read :) amazing review the whole analogy of science with religion and rituals with technology is super amazing. But I wonder if Grayling ever thought that the technology (as in rituals) were more of a way of life to facilitate everyday things. if i can use the liberty of using the example of kamasutra (eyes rolling :P) it was never intended as a dialogue on sex but actually a way of life. Like rules for everyday hygiene and stuff. And in time it lost its purpose, its more illustrious elements found more space in society.

    U see how charged up I am, you have give me so much food for thought :)

    www.subzeroricha.blogspot.in

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    1. Richa, I'm flattered by your regular presence in this space and that too with a very intelligent comment.

      Don't you think Kamasutra was more of an aberration than a ritual? It couldn't have been a ritual at all though it might have been a sincere reflection of certain powerful people's way of life :) Consider also our pracrices like Devadasi system and the treatment of widows. Weren't they reflections of the same perverted attitudes that gave rise to the Kamasutra?

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    2. you want an honest answer kamasutra is a book much ahead of our times. The people at that time were more mature to handle something like this. I have read a lot on different kinds of religion and in almost all religions sex initially was more of a liberation rather than a taboo. But then time passed and man decided on religion and i feel whenever u deem something as a taboo it becomes coveted. Kamasutra was a book on way of life and perhaps sex was an important way of life just that now it is coveted and so the hubla boo. I hope u understood the gibberish I wrote :D

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    3. Yes, Richa, I understand what you say. But I'm not sure I'll agree with you that sex is a liberating act, especially if you mean promiscuous sex. Sex is indeed a liberating act between people who love each other. I'm not able to accept the kind of commercial attitude that most people have toward sex and 'love'.

      I come from a state (Kerala) where the women had to go on a revolutionary movement in order to ensure their right to cover their breasts. It was religious leaders who had made such rules as 'women of low caste should expose their breasts to men of upper castes'! Religion contributed more to the perversion of sex than the liberation of it, as I understand.

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    4. I agree about the promiscuous sex part. But what I wanted elucidate was the religion in its nascent stage. It corrupted sex after it denounced it as taboo. The promiscuity entered after it was registered a sin. Why do we have devdasis? Because the priests had denounced it as a taboo but had their own needs and so the deplorable practice was introduced. Sorry was spamming your post :D

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    5. Not spamming, Richa. Love to have you here again and again.

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  2. You have intrigued me! Grayling's interpretation has piqued my interest and I have you to thank for it. I definitely need to read this now but only after I finish "Christianity and the decline of Rome" by Edward Gibbon. Gibbon has attempted to explain away Christianity's beliefs in the scientific and as a matter-of-fact way. I think this book may be helpful to augment what Gibbon has to say.

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    1. I haven't read Gibbon yet. But I hope Grayling will help you to understand religion from a philosophical angle, while Gibbon must have presented it from a historical angle.

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  3. I love how you finally zeroed in on social control being the culprit to the distancing of the gods and people. I'm looking forward to reading more on this from you.

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    1. Thanks, Deepa. You will definitely get more on this here :)

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  4. I don't know how far Grayling will be successful in substantiating his arguments. Even today there are many religiously biased norms and rituals which might or might not have a technological control and no scientific reasons, but still people follow the same. Religion stays as a deeply rooted phenomenon over years. In India particularly if you take Hindusim, its a way of living...it was stratified on occupational basis, but later was converted into religion. This a very vast topic...much more to say...the space wont be enough and I might cross the brevity. But thank you for igniting such a thought...

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    1. It is a vast topic, no doubt. You would have to write an entire encyclopedia to explain what you want to say. But the purpose here is to show that religion is not so deeply rooted if we can go beyond emotions and start thinking logically. I'm tickling that logical bone in our ribs which most people don't use :)

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    1. It's really interesting. thanks for saying that, Nona.

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  6. "We are discussing the origins of religion. Grayling argues that understanding the reality around us, explaining it to others and controlling it are the original purposes of religion." - I have a different take: religion began as the handmaiden of serving the interests of power mongers. It is a device made by and for the power mongers.

    No other understanding of religion would withstand scrutiny.

    RE

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    1. No, Raghuram. I think I failed in making Grayling clear enough. What he says is that in the infancy of the human species religion was the science. Science went on growing and religion didn't... I hope you understand the difference and the significance of that difference.

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  7. What you are saying is astronomy came first and it became astrology!

    This I would agree. But, why astronomy itself? That is innate curiosity.

    RE

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  8. I believe much of the philosophies that we follow today are as per the priests convenience and they have found the way to rule by dividing...people in the name of religion...!!!

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    1. Priests of convenience - you said it. Thanks.

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  9. Calling religion as science and rituals as technology, isn't it a little too generous? However primitive, science should be something that should be rationally explainable IMO, I would agree there could be mistakes or early conclusions in science, but something as superficial as religious rituals I doubt can be classified as earlier forms of science?

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  10. I agree with you. In modern day religion seems to be a hindrance to the progress of science and technology. We needed religion long time ago to teach people to love mankind. But in the present day scenario religion does not fit into any equation.

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  11. I wrote a similar piece on the history of civilisation. Thought you might like it. http://www.yosny.com/the-history-of-civilisation/

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    1. I read your blog and have posted my comment there. It's a wonderful piece of writing.

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