Two weeks ago, I wrote an article on evidence for humanity’s oldest forms of religion. In my view, many aspects of issues we face today can be illuminated by thinking about their history, and much of that history is religious in nature. That article didn’t generate many comments, but those it did convinced me this is a topic many of our readers would like to think more about. This, then, is the second in what might become a continuing series on Old Time Religion.
The separation of Church and State is one of America’s most cherished freedoms. The right to worship as we choose — or to not worship at all — without the imposition of an official national religion is the very first right listed in the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”
Yet, in an apparent contradiction, religion has never been absent from our politics or our public discourse, and attempts to banish it completely have always failed. We want to worship as we choose; we do not want religion to be imposed; yet we want our elected officials to be religious, and many of our most important historical controversies (abolition, prohibition, civil rights, support of or opposition to various wars, and so on) have often been couched in religious terms.
The relationship between faith and society is complex, particularly in western culture. The reasons for this complexity lie rooted in European history over the last two millennia. Examining a part of that history can help us understand why it is so hard to banish religious ideas and religious motivations from our politics and our government. It may indeed be impossible to do so. We may not want to do it even if we could.
In order to begin approaching this question, it’s important to understand what religion is, and what purposes it has served in past cultures throughout human history. The word “religion” is from Lain re– “again” + legere “to read,” as in “to give a lecture,” thus, to teach something again and again. The word became associated with religare “to bind fast,” to link or tie things together. Both of these meanings are vital. The “link” involved is the tie between humanity and divinity, between the world and the gods. The thing taught and re-taught is that very link. Religion is how humans can seek to touch the face of god.
Please note: I intend at all times in this series to use the word “god” in a non-specific form. That is, unless I otherwise make clear, I’m not talking about any particular god. I most specifically want to stress that, unless I indicate otherwise, I don’t mean to point toward the deity described by the West’s three major religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. For instance, for the purpose of the point I’m making on the definition of “religion”, the “god” with whom one seeks a link could be the god of the Bible, or Zeus or Erzulie, Wakan Tanka, or Amaterasu, or any of the other millions of gods and goddesses through our history and across our planet whom humans have worshipped.
This idea of “linking” is pervasive in religious thought. Take the English word I just used at the end of the last paragraph — “worship”. It is from Old English, wyrd-shape, to shape or form one’s wyrd. The word wyrd came to mean “worth”. but originally it was the Old English word for “fate”. You “worship” a given deity in an effort to tie your fate to that deity. Your doom becomes entangled with that of the god you choose to follow.
Take another word commonly used in religion: adoration. To “adore” is from the Latin adloquor. It means, “to speak to”. or “to address”. To give “adoration” to a god it is to speak with — in essence, to have a conversation with, and thus, to form a relationship with — that god.
I could go on for a long time on the actual meanings of words used in religious context. My point at present is that the most basic intent and purpose of religion is to cement the ties and relationships between the human — the mundane (“earthly”) — and the divine (“god-like”).
Humans seem drawn to this link. There is no human society that doesn’t have some idea of religion, and that doesn’t seek to re-form that tie. Why does it matter so much? Why did it matter in past societies? Does it still matter today? Why is religion so pervasive?
Let’s put aside for a moment the question of whether gods are real, whether They are conscious, thinking, and feeling beings. Perhaps They are lonely, and want the connection as much as we do; perhaps, then, the mutual attraction, like two magnets, cannot be resisted. But let’s leave that possibility for an entirely different forum, because there is no way to test it historically.
What we can do is examine the uses and functions of religion in societies through history, and in different parts of the world. In simplest terms, with very few exceptions (one of which I’ll get to at the end of this article), religion has been used as a primary vehicle of culture. That is, the values of the culture, and even many (usually all) of its most important features, are contained and described and maintained within sacred tales. This is how these features are passed on to later generations, and how they are kept from being lost.
As an example: picture a primitive hunter-gatherer society, one that lives barely above subsistence, gathering fruits and nuts in a primordial forest, and hunting deer and other beasts for meat. Such a society will have a God of the Hunt, whose sacred stories include how this God gave spears and traps to humans, and taught them how to make those spears and traps. There will be a Goddess of the Hearth, who taught how to make fire, and how to prepare the meat for dinner, and the hides for clothing. There will be deities or sprites of the trees, who teach which fruits are nourishing and which are poisonous. There will be Goddesses of Childbirth who inform midwives, and gods of the seasons who lead the people to winter shelter.
We needn’t dwell too much on whether any of this knowledge was actually obtained from divine sources, or through trial and error over hundreds of generations. The point is, the culture will remember how to make spears and traps and fires and clothing, they will remember which berries to pick and which to avoid, because they will remember the sacred tales; and they will remember the sacred tales because they are sacred.
Until very recently, all of humanity lived on subsistence-level gathering and dirt-to-mouth agriculture. When the culture changed and grew, so did its religion. They were tied, linked together. The development of planting leads to farming gods who tell you how to make plows and when to plant. When there are a few hundred people living together, there are gods of Sacred Assemblies who tell how to chose leaders or how to run the equivalent of a town-hall meeting. Gods of Pottery will maintain the knowledge of ceramics; Gods of the Forge will teach how to smelt iron and make things with it. Thus, the technologies and institutions and annual cycles of the culture are shaped and guided by sacred tales and by the rituals which form around those tales.
If you live in any of these cultures, you will survive because you worship (wyrd-shape, tie your doom to) the gods of the culture. You fate is inseparable from your gods. So is your culture. All are tied, and the tie is the linking, religare. Abandon those gods, and you (or your children) will forget how to survive in that environment. Humans survived because they recalled the stories of their gods.
This has been the relationship of humans and their culture and their gods, for as long as there have been humans. Depending on where you put the origin of humanity (forty thousand years ago? a hundred thousand? a million or more?) that is how long this relationship has lasted. The idea of a “separation of church and state” would be meaningless — worse, it would be cultural suicide, possibly genocide — for any society that tried it.
Only with the invention of writing, and with the development of technologies that allowed people to store grain for later years, only then could humans conceive of separating culture from gods. Yet people still didn’t do it — not for thousands of years. Consider what we think of as “classical” ancient cultures: Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Norse, Celts, Aztecs, Mayans, ancient Chinese, the Hindu cultures of India, Shinto in Japan, and so on. The gods and the politics and the society, the art and thought and daily life, none of this was separate from any of the rest of it. Even as late as the twentieth century, during the Second World War, the Emperor of Japan was thought to be literally the descendant of Amaterasu, the Shinto Goddess of the Sun.
Divinity infused every aspect of these cultures, even though they all had the capacity to abandon it if they chose. They did not so choose, and probably couldn’t even formulate the idea. Try to imagine it. What would Roman culture be without Roman gods? They are utterly inseparable. One defines the other.
This was the relationship between the Church and the State for nearly all of human history. The two were synonymous, even before the concepts of “church” and “state” existed.
It began to change around seventeen hundred years ago. In fact, the date the change began can be pretty precisely placed. I’ll tell that story in a future article. For now, I’ll just allude to the outlines of the process.
Note the central point of the cultural/divine connection described above. The religion contains the culture, provides the means of recreating its technology and its institutions. The gods and the culture are inseparable. They only make sense in tandem with each other.
What would happen if you could impose different gods upon a culture? What would happen if you could strip away the gods that were there, prevent their worship, destroy or de-legitimize their sacred tales? What would be the result of making a people forget their gods?
There are only two possible outcomes. If the culture has not progressed to the point where knowledge of its technology and institutions can be passed from one generation to another by some means other than sacred tales, then the culture will die. That is one possible result. We have seen it again and again when a colonizing culture conquers a “primitive” people and imposes its own beliefs. The indigenous culture dies.
The second possibility is a break, a severing between the mundane and the sacred. Gods will no longer inhabit the hearth and the spear, the plow or the City Assembly. At least, the gods that gave us these things will no longer be there. In their place will be whatever are the new gods, the ones stuck in from the outside. They won’t fit, because their tales are stories for a different place and a different time. They will tell how to construct different technologies and different social structures. We will have culture, and we will have worship, and the two will be unrelated to each other. The actual link — actual religere, an actual sense of the presence of God — will be gone.
It will then suddenly be possible to have a separation of Church and State. In fact, at that point the separation becomes unavoidable. It takes a conscious effort to force them together, to warp one to fit the other, like shoving your foot into a glove.
We lose a sense of the constant presence of divinity all around us, because the things we use in our everyday lives were not the direct gifts of specific gods who were created along with those objects. We gain the ability to think of society and belief as two separate things. In fact, we no longer are able to see them as connected. (Consider: there is no god of the automobile or the computer.)
This is what happened when Christianity conquered Europe. The gods of Europe were banished, and everyday life in the West lost its sense of direct contact with the sacred. A spirituality from the Middle East, from a culture and a people unrelated to Europe, was superimposed. It does not fit. Many of the indigenous cultures of Europe circa CE 300 - CE 1500 have vanished. What remains is a mismatch of technologies and social structures that do not correspond to the spiritual beliefs of the people who use them.
Today, we cannot banish religion from our politics, because humans are hard-wired to see culture as something that is not distinct from its gods. Yet the gods we have are gods for a different culture. This creates a cultural schizophrenia for which we have not yet found a cure.
I can talk about the source of this traumatic break in a future article. We can discuss ways to think about the cultural psychosis it has caused, and ways we can consider treating it. Please let me know if this is a conversation you, Gentle Reader, want to have.
About dcpetterson (186 posts)
D. C. Petterson is a novelist and a software consultant in Minnesota who has been writing science fiction since the age of six. He is the author of A Melancholy Humour, Rune Song and Still Life. He lives with his wife, two dogs, two cats, and a lizard, and insists that grandchildren are the reward for having survived teenagers. When not writing stories or software, he plays guitar and piano, engages in political debate, and reads a lot of history and physics texts—for fun. Follow on Twitter @dcpetterson