Part 1: Robert Wright on the Roots of Religious Sacrifice

In his expansive work, “The Evolution of God”, Robert Wright talks of ‘primitive’ religion, as observed among the Polynesians of the 18th and 19th centuries, and how it compares to modern society:

If you compare modern life with life in a hunter-gatherer society, the differences are big. We have a complexly productive economy, featuring division of labor and capital investment and high technology. We have an elaborate government, its authority resting on laws that guide enforcement and preserve legitimacy. All of this lets people interact peacefully and productively with people they know barely, if at all. And the entire system is rationalized; though it may rest partly on moral intuitions and draw on religious sentiment (“So help me God”), we justify our political, legal, and economic systems in pragmatic terms, revising them in the name of efficacy.

But apparently we didn’t arrive at this rationality in a very rational way. When social structure took its first big step toward the modern world, evolving from hunter-gatherer society to agrarian chiefdom, it leaned heavily on the gods. Not all observed chiefdoms are as pervaded by religion as Polynesian ones, but compared to modern societies, chiefdoms in general are soaked in it. In chiefdoms, gods were guardians of political power, supervisors of economic performance, and supporters of social norms that let unprecedently large numbers of people live together. And this residential density—this high concentration of brains and egos—sponsored a kind of creative synergy, accelerating the rate of technological and social change, propelling society toward modern form. Whatever you think of the world you find yourself in, you have the gods of chiefdoms to thank for it.

But how thankful should the Polynesians have been? Was their social system a just one? Did religion, in upholding it, uphold the public good? Or were gods just a tool of oppression, devoutly sustained by a ruling class that wanted to keep living in the manner to which it had become accustomed?…

…Human sacrifice seems also to have had an upper-class bias. In the Society Islands, one anthropologist noted, candidates for sacrifice fell into several categories, including prisoner of war, blasphemer, and “person obnoxious to the chief or priest”….what could a functionalist possibly say in defense of the claim that religion benefits society as a whole? More than you might think.

Consider human sacrifice, as appraised in the clinical terms of functionalism. Even Captain Cook, who deemed it a “waste of the human race,” noted that many of the adults sacrificed were criminals. And many others were “common low fellows, who stroll about from place to place and from island to island, without having any fixed abode, or any visible way of getting an honest livelihood”.

Now, we might today consider death excessive punishment for many crimes, and certainly for transience and indigence. But well after Cook wrote, his native England would be locking up poor people in debtors’ prison. And, in any event, the removal from society of people who take from it less than they give isn’t, in cold economic terms, a “waste.” It may well have made the chiefdom stronger and more efficient, and thus have been socially “functional,” whatever you think of its morality. (Supernatural belief has other ways of weeding out poor performers. In various societies, including some hunter-gatherer ones, people accused of sorcery or witchcraft and punished by banishment or death tend to be notoriously uncooperative or otherwise antisocial characters.)  More generally, Polynesian religion seems to have kept the machine humming. Under the severe gaze of gods, canoes got made, fish got caught, pigs and yams got raised.              [Robert Wright, The Evolution of God]


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