Russell and Duenes

from the ivory tower: chapter 2 – temple religions of ancient civilizations

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Stark covers a lot of ground in this chapter, but his main aim is to explore why “advanced civilizations” regressed from notions of High Gods to extensive polytheism. Some of the questions he explores are as follows:

What was the appeal of extensive polytheism as opposed to the emphasis on High Gods that had dominated less advanced societies?

Stark’s answer is, People probably are more comfortable with the far more humanlike and far less demanding Gods of extensive (sic) polytheism – Gods whose demands can quite easily be satisfied. In comparison, monotheism is a much more demanding and far less comfortable faith. ..By offering many quite undemanding Gods, the temple religions chose the easy way. Not only were their Gods easily satisfied so long as they were properly tended and if the appropriate rites and rituals were performed in the correct way, these were chores fully satisfied by the professional priesthood (111-12).

Why did these idolatrous religions endure for several millennia without any significant change?

They didn’t change, according to Stark, because 1) The priesthood required an extensive body of specialized knowledge and practice, and thus “innovation is error” (98), 2) Priests became cynical and unbelieving, which means that they were not open to innovations or new revelations, 3) Religious innovators are feared and ultimately stamped out. “Anyone outside the priesthood is denied all religious standing, and anyone within the priesthood who begins to innovate is subdued by whatever means necessary” (98). Stark makes an interesting point here, namely that most religions want a “completed faith,” that is, one whose revelation(s) cease at a certain point in time. Obviously this is true of Christianity, and it is often a squabble within Christendom over whether or not new “words of knowledge” or “special revelations” still occur. There certainly is a kind of doctrinal preservation that becomes possible when once we argue that new revelation has ceased and the biblical canon is closed. The essential point Stark makes is that the priesthood, “having no competition…had no need to change, and if this resulted in a relatively apathetic public, so what? Subsidized temples have no need for public support” (99).

What prompted the incredible emphasis on monumentalism, on building gigantic temples and tombs?

Stark’s answer here is that temples were built partly to satisfy and please the Gods, but, as with politicians today, there was also the issue of a ruler’s legacy. Written histories were not possible, so those who had wealth and power could preserve their legacy through massive, ostentatious temples (104-5).

Why were these “state” religions only of marginal importance to the average person?

They were only of marginal importance because the Gods did not require moral and holy behavior from the average person (or anybody, really). Stark explains that “aside from requiring humans to venerate them properly, the Gods often seemed to care little about human behavior, moral or immoral” (92). These polytheistic religions “lacked attractive doctrines concerning individual salvation” (93).

Why was sacrifice (including human sacrifice) so central and sometimes carried to such excessive lengths?

Stark argues that there was need to appease the Gods, and sacrifices – “things given up or foregone so that they may be offered to God(s)” – fit the bill. Since these Gods often had human desires, says Stark, offering them things like food, drink, money, etc, made sense. However, Stark’s main emphasis is on human sacrifices. Such sacrifices occurred on a massive scale among the Aztecs and Mayas and “served to glorify the status of these elites and to intimidate their subjects both at home and abroad. The religious aspects of human sacrifice reinforced the status of the elites as favorites of the Gods…The bloody reality reinforced the structure of domination and submission – any sign of resistance or even of resentment was a sure ticket up a steep temple staircase” (111).

Once again, I don’t have the scholarly background required to critically evaluate Stark’s claims in this chapter. His answers to the above questions make sense, and he provides evidence to support his claims. As in previous chapters, I applaud Stark for challenging the prevailing “materialist” assumptions behind much of the anthropology and sociology of religion. He rightly points out that the word “myth” is used pejoratively in order to cut off reasonable debate. Call something a myth today and there’s no need to consider it, for according to those who use “myth” negatively, it must describe something that is irrational and stupid. So, if one calls, say, the Old Testament a “myth,” then the discussion is over, right? You’d have to be an unintelligent ignoramus to believe in any of it. This is how we often deal with issues of race today: Call someone a racist and you don’t have to deal with their ideas any longer.

Stark also correctly exposes the kind of fanciful interpretations of the ethnographic data that prevail in the “sciences” today. Scholars call something religious a “myth” and then start interpreting the myth – the stories and teachings – in all sorts of ludicrous ways, usually sexual. I’ve seen this first hand in theology. Scholars take the Bible and gin up all sorts of far-flung interpretive schemes and wild theories. I once knew someone who tried to argue that the canonical gospels were nothing but Jewish midrash – which is to say, historically fictitious stories, reworked from O.T. stories, that teach a spiritual moral. The data didn’t matter to him; what mattered was novelty and finding something new and “interesting.” My guess is that such fanciful ideas continue to be promulgated as a justification for continuing “scholarship.” After all, what fun is it to keep saying the same things over and over? New and creative explanations are needed to keep the “religion-as-curiosity” industry going. It’s a big industry and there’s lots of money to be made.

Finally, Stark raises an important issue in making reference to all the various “flood” narratives, but there’s not much of a discussion. The issue is important, but he simply tells us that we should not adopt an anti-biblical position nor keep ourselves ignorant of all the different flood stories. Yet he doesn’t say why. Further, he steps away from his field and starts giving us commentary on how there is “no scientific basis for the claim that the entire earth ever was covered with a flood” (88). This is the kind of argument-by-assertion that Stark has rightfully rebuked others for. He is not in a position to consider the geological issues seriously, so there’s really no point in making statements he cannot support.

As always, Stark continues his refrain, for which I am grateful, that all of these religious practices in history happen not because of some chemical mixture in our brains, not because of some “God gene,” and not because of the human need for solidarity and belonging. They happen because, gosh darn it, people actually believe in God(s) and live upon such beliefs. Speaking of human sacrifices, he remarks, “Without the religious reasons, no sacrifices would have occurred” (111).


Written by Michael Duenes

March 8, 2010 at 6:57 am

Posted in Duenes, Literature

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