Civilisation and Religion: power and progress in human history

Egypt.Giza.Sphinx.02Who rules, who serves? This binary is the most loaded question in all of human civilization. For most of our, human, history, this question has been settled by one simple formula: the ability to inflict violence, by one over another, to begin with. And, then, by gangs led by the one, against the rest. Again, for the majority of our species’ evolutionary trajectory power has, literally, been force. Our species, it should be mentioned, is roughly a hundred thousand years old. And, for most of our ‘history’, this has been the case. It is only about 10,000 years ago that things began to get a little interesting.

About, ten thousand years ago human beings invented civilization. The oldest humans, and even pre-humans, always had culture, language, mythology and, perhaps, even gods. What was unique about civilization was that power, for the first time, became separated from physical force. Human beings, along with civilization, invented the first systems of social control. And they remain with us today, as active part of civilization. Much like the control of fire, the invention of weapons, the discovery of the wheel mechanism, the invention that allowed the transition from hunter gatherer to city-dweller remains with us. We call it religion.

Religion is different from mythology and even worship in that it fuses power with social control. Mythology is very personal, perhaps belonging more to the realm of dreams than reality.  Worship is, again, very personal, sourcing from the human mammal’s evolutionary capacity to hope. But, religion is takes both to a new level. It advances dreams into aspirations, and hopes into politics. Religion, then, is more about aspirational politics than any intrinsic reality of existence.

Participation in any religious activity is a political act. Religio-political acts are not about human solidarity, redemption or transience. All religious acts actively draw boundaries between insiders and outsiders. They claim glory for the former, and retribution for the latter. This binary creating nature of religion makes it more political than spiritual, different, that is, from spiritualism or the fungible nature of myths. One does not participate in a religion one does not share in the creation of its elements, or its mythics. One serves a God, who ‘rules’ over a religious group, a congregation, say. And just like any other political system, this architecture of control has its hierarchies.

Our species is very young. We made a physiological leap about a hundred thousand years ago. But our socio-civilisational leap is very recent. Agricultural civilization began in some parts of the world as late as two thousand years ago. We, as a species, have still not come to terms with the multiple aspects of our nature. Rather than treating our history as our destiny, and fighting over it, we must think about the legacies, and possibilities, of our very, very short existence on this planet. The past is gone, the future will just come about in the course of things. The question is, what propels it forward.

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