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Saturday, 19 May 2018

There are many religions but we all worship for the same reason

As a species, humans everywhere are consistent in their need for religion in order to ensure the strength of their societies. Humans are communal animals and need societies in order to survive. We are also descended from apes, which are hierarchical animals. Apes live in small groups that are led by a dominant male.

In his 2009 book on democracy, Sydney University academic John Keane points to the pantheism of Mesopotamia to find the origins of the dominant political structure of today. In those ancient cities, which were built next to rivers and were surrounded by fields filled with ripening crops and healthy cattle, people worshipped a family of gods and they used the stories that arose from the interactions between the family members to animate their daily lives, give form to their thoughts, and regulate their societies.

In the absence of a deity that all people in the community can worship, people tend to become homicidally competitive. They need a god or a set of gods at the top of the hierarchy in order that all men (and of course women) can live as equals.

The religions of the book, which were monotheistic, took the idea of cosmogonical justification to a new level. Starting with Judaism, the beliefs and moral codes of the group were codified, regularised, and written down so that they could be easily transported and spread to other groups that the original group might trade with. Writing was another invention of the Mesopotamians that allowed this to occur. The stories that the Jews told each other about the origins of the earth, their tribal histories, and the stories of their leaders and notable community members formed the basis for the new books.

Christianity and, later, Islam, drew upon this influence in order to make a claim for the dominance of their own cosmology in the face of the pantheism of Rome, which however adopted Christianity as its state religion in about 300AD. Stories continued to be told to children in order to educate them in the ways that a man (or woman) should live in society. The books also helped communities enact the symbolic rites that they relied on to periodically underscore their shared interests. When Europeans arrived in Australia they saw Aboriginals conducting corroborees that constituted their own communal rites, although they did not take the time to sit down and learn about the stories the original inhabitants of the land were telling each other during those dances.

In short, religion is the sharing of stories to form a community that sustains lives. It has a critical function in every society on earth because of the advantages and difficulties of people living in communities. We need to live together, but we also need something to enable us to treat each other as equals. Religion is a species habit of human beings, a type of cognitive artefact that in different forms is common to all of us, wherever we came from and wherever we live. Where people form a community they will naturally establish stories of origins that enable them to flourish together, and thus be strong in the world. In modern times, in the absence of a revealed religion, people often rely on such things as nationalism to buttress the fabric of their communities.

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